I just finished reading Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. It was the only novel of Ellison’s that was published in his lifetime. He worked on the book for seven years, and it won the National Book Award in 1953, making Ellison the first African American author to win that distinguished literary prize.
In my opinion, Invisible Man is one of the great books of the 20th Century. Its first- person narration is brilliant. One sees the influence of both Faulkner and Joyce in the interior monologue of the unnamed narrator. From the beginning to the end, the novel grabs your complete attention with riveting episodes set in the Depression-era South and New York’s Harlem.
In an interview with the African American author, James Alan McPherson, Ellison discussed his writing. “Fiction,” he said, “became the agency of my efforts to answer the questions: Who am I, what am I, how did I come to be?…What does American society mean when regarded out of my own eyes, when informed by my own sense of the past and viewed by my own complex sense of the present.”
Ellison in that interview then goes on to make a statement that still resonates today in fierce controversy. “It is quite possible that much potential fiction by Negro Americans fails precisely at this point: through the writer’s refusal (often through provincialism or lack of courage or opportunism) to achieve a vision of life and a resourcefulness of craft commensurate with the complexity of their actual situation. Too often they fear to leave the uneasy sanctuary of race to take their chances in the world of art.”
Due to the pandemic, my upcoming class on Isaac Bashevis Singer’s “A Crown of Feathers and Other Stories” at Oakton Community College’s Emeritus Program is going virtual. Although this Emeritus class is geared toward an audience of seniors, anyone, anywhere, is welcome to join us.
Isaac Bashevis Singer, who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1978, was one of the great storytellers of the twentieth century. The scope of his writing is wide, depicting the lost world of the vibrant Jewish community in Poland, as well as the difficulties of acculturation to America experienced by the Jewish refugees fleeing Europe both before and after World War Two.
“ A Crown of Feathers and Other Stories” consists of twenty-four stories, nicely balanced in settings between the Old and New Worlds. This powerful and poignant collection of stories was the winner of the National Book Award in 1974.
The class is being offered six consecutive Thursday mornings from June 18 through July 23. The time of the class is 10:00 a.m. until 11:30 a.m. Class and registration information for the Emeritus program can be found at http://www.oakton.edu/conted. Please feel free to share this with anyone who may have interest.
My guest blogger today is Reverend Ken Frazier, a dear friend, who is the Senior Minister of the First Congregational Church of Waterbury, Connecticut.
The Havarti Effect, or How to Get to Heaven
(another short, short story for our time)
She’s been working for several years as a clerk in the deli department at one of the large grocery store chains in Connecticut, and now that many deli departments are partly closed, with none of the salads and pastas and prepared foods, she has moved to the cheese and salami section. She takes great pride in stocking and arranging the items, all neatly ordered, and she’s always been polite and helpful to the customers, and most of them were appreciative of her efforts until recently when things changed. Remember? Things changed? How shall I say this? Tempers flared. Patience wore thin. Restraint was in short order. Quantity restrictions were ignored, and in general, life in the “essential” grocery store segment of our current economy came to be more and more difficult.
But, she still took pride in her work and tried her best to be of service to all the customers. Like her grandparents, her mother and her sisters, she had been reared, you see, with an admirable work ethic. One could even say she had been imbued from her youth with a classic “Christian” work ethic, drawn in part from the writings of C. S. Lewis in The Chronicles of Narnia, read to her as a child, and in the writings of the great Christian novelist, George MacDonald, who put it this way:
“It is our best work that God wants, not the dregs of our exhaustion. I think he must prefer quality to quantity.”
And, then one day the Havarti cheese incident occurred, and like so many of the changed things in our time, it was irrational. She was stocking the cheese department when a customer began to complain about the Havarti cheese…it wasn’t fresh enough, the packaging looked strange, the expiration date wasn’t right, how long had it been out, why is it from Denmark, and on and on. She attempted to be of service, to no avail, and finally the irate customer huffed and walked away grumbling, leaving the Havarti cheese in the display.
Another customer who witnessed the incident came up to her and said, “You did everything you could, and you will go to Heaven.”
The Havarti effect, then, is the effect of a life devoted to compassionate service, and that is what OUR TIME calls for. We are all feeling the strains of this “new normal.” (And we haven’t even figured out what that means, yet.) The answer to the strains is at the heart of our faith, namely the love of God that will not only carry us through, but will be our gift to the world. And put simply, for our time, “going to Heaven” means being in the place where God can be seen: in a deed of loving kindness, in patience and understanding, in knowing that the mask you wear is to protect others, that the masks you make may save the life of a frontline health care worker, that the 6’ spray-painted mark at the grocery store is a sign of indomitable hope, in just two short steps.
Be at peace,
Anne Tyler is certainly one of the grand dames of the American literary scene at age 78. She has written 23 novels, three of which have been nominated for a National Book Award, one, “Breathing Lessons,” won a Pulitzer Prize, and one, “A Spool of Blue Thread,” received international acclamation by being shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. I have been an avid reader of hers for nearly forty years, having read 18 of her novels. Why do I keep coming back to her?
The answer is simply that she gives me pure reading pleasure. Her books, most of them set in Baltimore and its environs, always have an interesting plot, but the real strength of her writing is her marvelous protagonists, all variations of a quirky Everyman or Everywoman.
The Everyman in her last novel, “Redhead by the Side of the Road,” is Micah Mortimer, an IT repair guy who doubles up as a super for a small Baltimore apartment building. Like so many of Tyler’s main characters, Micah has made poor decisions regarding both love and career. We meet him in the novel where he has attained creature of habit status, a middle-aged man set in his ways.
In typical Tyler style, Micah’s daily routine is described humorously. “Monday was floor-mopping day—the kitchen floor and the bathroom . ‘Zee dreaded moppink,’ he said as he ran hot water into a bucket. He often talked to himself as he worked, using one or another foreign accent. Right now it was German, or maybe Russian. ‘Zee moppink of zee floors.’’’
The book is a delight and a great and fast read (only 178 pages) to divert your attention from our own routines that we now face each day in this new and scary Covid-19 world.
In Willard Motley’s great novel of Depression-Era Chicago, Knock on Any Door, one of the characters mentions “I won a prize on the Morris B. Sachs amateur hour a year ago. Five dollars for five minutes.” Later on in the book there is a mention of clothes that” Emma had bought at Sachs out on the South Side to get married in.” These references in Motley’s novel reflect the pervasiveness of Morris B. Sachs and his enterprises on the commercial and cultural fabric of Chicago life for nearly four decades.
As a young boy, Sachs traveled alone on board a ship from Europe, arriving at Ellis Island with countless other immigrants on or around 1908. Affixed to his well-worn coat was a tag with identifying information. It was understood by the immigration authorities that, through prearranged plans, the boy was to be picked up by a responsible adult…
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Today is Shakespeare’s birthday, and a few of my favorite Shakespeare moments come to mind. There was that performance of “Titus Andronicus” that I saw in Central Park in New York City in the summer of 1997 put on by Joseph Papp’s Free Shakespeare in the Park. I remember that it had the largest cast of any theatrical performance that I have ever seen. Olympia Dukakis and Moses Gunn were in that cast.
My most magical Shakespeare moment was viewing “Midsummer Night’s Dream” in the early 1980s at the American Players Theatre’s incredibly special setting in the woods of Spring Green, Wisconsin. It was an atmospheric evening presentation as the talented actor Randall Duk Kim played Puck as a bevy of bats flew above the stage.
Finally, just a few years ago, I saw the Strawdog Theatre in Chicago put on an energetic dramatization of “Cymbeline,” with a large cast of actors skillfully maneuvering around a ridiculously small performance venue. You were so close to the actors that you could see the freckles on their faces.
Please feel to share with us your favorite Shakespeare moments.
On June 5, 1958, Ulysses in Nighttown, a dramatization of the Circe episode from James Joyce’s novel “Ulysses” had its world debut at the Rooftop Theatre, an Off-Off Broadway venue on Houston Street. In the production, conceived and directed by Burgess Meredith, the role of Leopold Bloom was played by Zero Mostel. Others in the cast included Carroll O’Connor, Bea Arthur, John Astin and Anne Meara. Sets for the play were designed by the Academy Award winning designer Herman Rosse. The play was a major success. Mostel, who had been blacklisted, received critical acclaim, winning an Obie for the role, and was able to get his career back on track.
My friend, the artist Leonid Osseny, has collaborated with me on my books Chicago Sketches and 1001 Train Rides in Chicago. I first met him when he was showing his Ulysses-related artwork at an exhibit at the Irish American Cultural Center in Chicago. In his piece, Real Time in ‘Ulysses’ J. Joyce, illustrations of the eighteen chapters of Ulysses are depicted.
Leonid, who has an architectural background, is an eclectic artist who has utilized styles as diverse as Gothic to Constructivism in his work. His vision of Ulysses was formed by the compositional school of the great cinema director Sergei Eisenstein, who employed the device of “Inner Monologue,” must like Joyce, to convey his ideas.
Leonid has also exhibited his work on Ulysses at the 19th International James Joyce Symposium in Dublin, the Palette and Chisel and the Cliff Dwellers Club in Chicago, and the Evanston Public Library. He is an amazing artist, and he is always looking for additional venues to show his work. Please contact me at email@example.com if you might have interest in discussing a possible showing of Leonid’s art in the future.
Not only was Winston Churchill one of the great statesmen of the 20th century, but he was also one of its outstanding and prolific of writers. Among his books, Sir Winston wrote six volumes of The Second World War; four volumes of Marlborough: His Life and Times; and four volumes of A History of the English-Speaking Peoples. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1953 “for his mastery of historical and biographical description as well as brilliant oratory in defending exalted human values.”
My father, Jack Reeder, was born 107 years ago today, on April 9, 1913. He lived most of the 59 years of his life on Chicago’s West Side. Many of those years were at 4108 W. Grenshaw Street in Lawndale. We lived in a greystone two-flat that my parents and my sister Anne and I shared with our grandparents, Gussie and David Schlan, until we moved to West Rogers Park in 1955, when I was 9 years old.
In 1970, I moved back to my parents’ apartment on Lunt Avenue for a few months after an extended stay in Europe and Israel. There I found a thick Avon paperback that my father had just read. It was called The Old Bunch, written by Meyer Levin. I decided to read it as well.
It was an amazing book. The Old Bunch, originally published in 1937, is Chicago’s great Jewish novel. It follows a group of Jewish young people living in Lawndale in the 1920s and the 1930s. They are the sons and daughters of Eastern European immigrant Jews who are aspiring to live “the American Dream,” even when they are hard hit by the Great Depression.
The Old Bunch especially resonated with me because I saw so much of my mother and father, uncles and aunts, and their friends in Levin’s characters. These were people who had the grit and determination to overcome adversities to make a better life for themselves and families.
The “old bunch” in Levin’s book established lifelong friendships growing up in Lawndale, which were very similar to my parents’ experiences with their friends from the “Old Neighborhood.” These friendships were kept and treasured for as long as they lived.