Friday, June 17, 2011

5 Questions with Ned Stuckey-French, Interview by Daren Dean

Q. One does not expect to be drawn into a discussion of politics and class in a book about the American Essay and yet you cite your involvement in Students for a Democratic Society as a college student in the Preface of your book in a startling and thought-provoking way. What made a college student with an Ivy League education drop out of graduate school and rebel against his family and class during the Vietnam era?

Well, I don’t know that I rebelled against my family and class, though there were times when my parents, especially my father, probably thought otherwise. Those times were, however, long ago. If my parents were alive today, they would be proud of me and of this book. They met in Columbia when my father was returning to the University of Missouri after WWII courtesy of the GI Bill of Rights, and my mom was at Stephens College. So, it would be a thrill for them – just as it is for me – to see this book appearing from the University of Missouri Press.

But to answer your question: I graduated from high school in June 1968. Bobby Kennedy, whom I had been campaigning for door-to-door in the Indiana Primary and whom I had met a month earlier, was shot the night of my high school commencement. Earlier that spring, in the middle of the Tet Offensive, I had registered for the draft. In April I had organized a drive to raise funds for a community center on the south side of Chicago that had been hit hard by the riots following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. It was a turbulent time – Prague Spring, building occupations at Columbia, a general strike in France, and soon, Mayor Dailey’s cops clubbing demonstrators and reporters at the Democratic Convention in Chicago.

By the time I went away to Harvard in the fall, the earnest little Student Body President I had been was fading fast. By the time I finished at Harvard, I’d become deeply involved in the civil rights, anti-war, feminist and student movements, and less and less enamored of traditional party politics and the middle-class ambitions I’d grown up with. After Harvard, I began a PhD program at Brown but left after two years to work full-time as a janitor (or, more properly, union organizer) in Boston’s largest hospital and as a community organizer in the Dorchester section of the city, which was in the throes of the busing crisis.

Eventually, I returned to graduate school, this time at the University of Iowa, but the decade I spent organizing in Boston (plus four years teaching high school in rural Indiana) has continued to inform the way I’ve thought about America, class, literature, and myself.

Q. What was the source of inspiration for this book, The American Essay in the American Century?

I have long been interested in the period between the two world wars – in part, I think, because my parents grew up during that time and I loved talking to them about their childhoods on Midwestern farms. But later, I felt that period speaking to me in a new way. I began to see the Roaring Twenties as a rehearsal for the cultural revolution of the Sixties; I began to see the Thirties, the heyday of the Old Left, as a precursor of the political rebellion of the Sixties. 

Then, when I went to Iowa to study the personal essay (I was already deep into the essays of Edward Abbey, Martin Luther King, Jr., Scott Sanders, Barry Lopez, Edward Hoagland, Susan Sontag, and Joan Didion), I joined a study group organized by Carl Klaus, the dean of American essay scholars. Finding the critical and theoretical work on the essay to be rather thin, the group decided to look at what essayists themselves, starting with Montaigne, had to say about their genre. The archive of material we uncovered proved to be rich and especially so for America during the first half of the twentieth century. For most of the first forty years of the century a debate over the “death of the essay” raged in magazines as different at Ladies Home Journal and the Saturday Review of Literature. In studying this debate I discovered the “colyumnists” of the New York’s papers – people like Heywood Broun, Alexander Woollcott, Dorothy Parker, and Christopher Morley. These writers revolutionized the American essay. They wrote a new kind of essay that was street-smart, witty, irreverent, political, and hip, and decidedly not genteel.

This on-going debate gave my book a narrative thread, but as I brought my own interests in history and politics to the story of the essay’s development, I saw that the book was also about the development of America’s new middle class during this period. That class, which John and Barbara Ehrenreich have called the “professional-managerial class,” or PMC, constituted the readers of these essays and the magazines in which they appeared. I think this discovery made the book more substantial and more interesting. It came to be not just about the essay as a fireside chat, but also about Franklin Roosevelt’s fireside chats as essays. It came to be about not just E. B. White as a New Yorker humorist and the author of Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little, but also E. B. White as a committed liberal and Thoreauvian who battled fascism in the columns that became One Man’s Meat. My friend Jo Ann Beard has been telling me for years that One Man’s Meat was a great and neglected American book. She’s right.

Q. What would you say is the role of the essay in the digital, image-obsessed age?

I think the role of the essay remains what it has been since Montaigne first came up with it in 1580, that is, to give us the story of a mind thinking, to give us an individual asking Montaigne’s original question, Que sais-je?, or What do I know? Sometimes I like to imagine all each essayist as kind of like Guy Noir, who, as we know, is up on “the 12th Floor of the Acme Building still trying to find the answers to life's persistent questions.”

But maybe that’s flip and not really answering your question. New media and our digital age do present some real challenges, but I think the essay will be up to those challenges. Sarah Blakewell, whose wonderful new book, How To Live, or a Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty-One Answers, received such acclaim last year, suggests that Montaigne, if he were alive today would be a blogger, and that if there had been no Montaigne, there might no bloggers.

I’ve been giving this some thought myself. I recently published a piece in TriQuarterly Online about the personal essay in the age of Facebook Though I’m pretty sympathetic to Facebook, even come out as a Facebook addict in the piece, I do think the relationship between the essay and Facebook is fraught and contradictory. An essay can be linked to a Facebook post, but a Facebook post is not an essay. Here’s a bit of what I said, if I may be so presumptuous as to quote myself:

A personal essay offers us the tumble of the mind and is, at least potentially, a work of art. It may be brief by comparison to a memoir or a novel, and in its brevity more akin to a lyric poem, but it is longer, more sustained, more revised, more substantial, and more artistic than anything on Facebook. If an essay gives us the story of a mind thinking, Facebook gives us isolated thoughts. It gives us updates; it gives us fragments.
It can also be said, however, that Facebook gives us conversation, or at least exchanges. But the exchanges on Facebook are ephemeral, fragmented, interrupted conversations; that stream of Facebook updates keeps moving down the page and disappearing out the bottom. There’s something sad about that.

Digitization is here to stay and essayists must learn to make use of it. Carl Klaus and I recently finished editing a collection titled Essayists on the Essay: From Montaigne to Our Time that the University of Iowa Press will be publishing next spring. The book includes a provocative excerpt from Ander Monson’s “The Essay as Hack.”  Monson’s new book, Vanishing Point: Not a Memoir, which has an accompanying (and evolving) web site offers one way forward.

My own attempt to make use of new media to advance the cause of the essay is a digital archive of twentieth-century American essays. My hope it that this archive will help move the study of the essay beyond the limitations of print anthologies. It will include (while respecting the “fair use” provision of copyright law) scans of essays as they first appeared in magazines as well as the surrounding ads, illustrations, contributors’ notes, tables of contents, subsequent letters to the editor, and other materials that might help inform readers about the essay’s original rhetorical context. That first version of the scanned essay can then be compared with subsequent appearances in variant editions. A further advantage of this archive is that it will be interactive, a site where scholars and others can meet, provide feedback, share syllabi, and discuss essays. I just received a generous grant from Florida State’s Council on Research and Creativity to begin work on this project. Several graduate students from a course I teach on American essays and magazine culture have begun scanning magazines, writing introductions to that material, and formatting it for the digital archive.

Q.  Who are some contemporary essayists you would recommend?

Well, I just mentioned Ander Monson, who would certainly be on such a list. I always read whatever new work I can find by established essayists such as Joan Didion, Jo Ann Beard, Edward Hoagland, Scott Russell Sanders, John Price, and Dinty Moore, and among international writers, I very much admire Chris Arthur, who is Irish, and Gabriel Zaid from Mexico.

Young American essayists whose work I find exciting include Ryan Van Meter and Eula Biss Ryan’s book If You Knew Then What I Know Now is just out from Sarabande . He writes precise narrative essays about growing up gay. Eula’s book, No Man’s Land: American Essays, won the National Book Critics Circle Award last year. The way she moves between the personal and political, the minute and the expansive seems effortless, though it has to involve a lot of hard work. Her piece “Time and Distance Overcome” is one of the most stunning essays I’ve ever read. Pat Madden’s Quotidiana is a terrific book, as are Steve Church’s The Day After the Day After and Bob Cowser’s Green Fields . Sarah Vowell is consistently good. Kim Dana Kuperman, Brenda Miller, and Marcia Aldrich are great. I’m currently in the middle of Debra Monroe’s beautiful and instructive memoir On the Outskirts of Normal right now, which is terrific. I know I’m missing some other important voices. I think it’s a good time for the essay.

Q. What writing projects are you working on now?

While writing The American Essay in the American Century, I was drawn increasingly to questions of class construction, audience, middlebrow culture, and the essay’s relationship to politics. In my next book I’ll be digging deeper into these issues. In it, I argue that middlebrow is not a “tepid ooze of Midcult” (as Dwight Macdonald put it) that diluted and vulgarized high culture but that it has always contained a progressive, even radical, element. The book will include readings of essayists such as Richard Wright, Alexander Woollcott, Heywood Broun, Dorothy Parker, and E. B. White, but it will also search out key moments in other media, such as the radio broadcast of Marian Anderson’s concert at the Lincoln Memorial on Easter Sunday 1939 or appearances by artists such as Harry Belafonte and Earth Kitt on the Ed Sullivan Show. My toe-in-the-water is a piece that appeared recently in middlebrow magazine  It’s about Jon Gnagy, a graphic artist who had an educational children’s show on TV that I watched as a kid.   

About the Author
Ned Stuckey-French is Assistant Professor of English at Florida State University. He is coeditor of the forthcoming Essayists on the Essay: Four Centuries of Commentary and coauthor of the eighth edition of Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft, the most widely adopted creative writing text in the U.S. He lives with his wife, author Elizabeth Stuckey-French, in Tallahassee, Florida. Checkout his new book The American Essay in the American Century

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