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

Thursday, June 16, 2011

UMP's Summer Reading

While summer is known for vacations, barbecues, beach outings, and long, sunny days, it is also the time when people start looking for good books to add to their reading lists. Whether it's a light-hearted romance, a page-turning thriller, or a challenging 1,000-page classic you've been meaning to tackle for years, a great summer read offers the perfect way to enjoy the sultry days of summer.

Summer reading lists seem to pop up everywhere and here at UMP we've collected some recommended reading from our staff.

1. The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolano

"Hilarious and sexy, meandering and melancholy, full of inside jokes about Latin American literati that you don't have to understand to enjoy, The Savage Detectives is a companionable and complicated road trip through Mexico City, Barcelona, Israel, Liberia, and finally the desert of northern Mexico." - from Amazon

2. Garden of Eden by Ernest Hemingway

"Set on the Côte d'Azur in the 1920s, it is the story of a young American writer, David Bourne, his glamorous wife, Catherine, and the dangerous, erotic game they play when they fall in love with the same woman" -from Amazon

"Obsessed with Laura Ingalls Wilder and her Little House books about an 1880s pioneer family, children's book editor and memoirist McClure (I'm Not the New Me) attempts to recapture her childhood vision of "Laura World." - from Publishers Weekly

4. The Bird Sisters by Rebecca Rasmussen

"A charming yet sober tale of two girls struggling to grow up amid family turmoil and poverty." - from Booklist

5. Juno's Daughters by Lise Saffran

"... A summer Shakespeare production brings new life, love, and drama to the sleepy Pacific Northwest island of San Juan." - from Publishers Weekly

6. The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley

"Even readers who don't normally enjoy Arthurian legends will love this version, a retelling from the point of view of the women behind the throne." - from Amazon

"In Dreams Begin Responsibilities and Other Stories collects eight of Delmore Schwartz's finest delineations of New York intellectuals in the 1930s and 1940s."- from GoodReads

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

The Metaconsciousness of David Foster Wallace: A Writer for the Future

By Daren Dean

I gave myself the task of writing something about an author I’ve long admired. The fear that I will fail to do any kind of justice to the subject at hand causes the thoughts to freeze in my mind until I come to accept that I have failed already and cannot say anything that hasn’t already been said before. The acceptance of that failure, still in the future although not too far, frees me up and the words begin to trickle. This is how it is with writing sometimes. Great expectations sometimes yield sour results unless you have the brand of talent, empathy, and genius of David Foster Wallace who made this sort of metacognition a hallmark of his prose. It is difficult even now not to gush at the beauty of the rawness of his prose and his bravery when I read the now famous commencement speech to the 2005 class of Kenyon College. He attempts to communicate to his audience that part of being human involves doing mundane things day after day after day without applause and calls for us all to be a bit more generous towards one another as we barrel from point A to point B cursing and fist-brandishing throughout our daily commutes to and from work. Even acknowledging this kind of commonplace truth that defines and takes up a significant portion of our daily life requires a sensitivity and attention to detail that most of us attempt to distract ourselves from with cell phones, iphones, satelite radio, headrest DVD player, and any other sort of electronic nirvana man has yet devised for amusement. I might even go so far as to suggest that despite the sometimes crystalline brilliance of Wallace’s writing, that what makes his work difficult is the unflinching attention to detail and unedited digressions that can be quite difficult to wade through for even the most devoted reader. David Foster Wallace’s posthumous , largely episodic, and long-awaited novel The Pale King is out now and rather than write a book review I will point you towards others.
The recent New York Times Book Review (April 17, 2011) features a review by Tom McCarthy called Last Audit. Before I’d even started to read McCarthy’s review I was pleased that someone who could be said to understand from a writer’s point-of-view Wallace’s project was taking on. In fact, you get two reviews in one with McCarthy. There’s a discussion of The Pale King and Fate, Time, and Language: An Essay on Free Will, By David Foster Wallace, Edited by Steven M. Cahn and Maureen Eckert. If that weren’t enough, in that same issue is an essay “The Counting House of Babel” by Jennifer Schuessler on Wallace’s fascination with the IRS if you need to catch up on the Wallace news. McCarthy discusses his views on Michael Pietch’s unenviable task of constructing hundreds of pages into a semblance of a novel. Even the most sympathetic reader of Wallace’s work may find this one a challenge as it deals with the subject of boredom and what may well represent the epitome of boredom in our collective consciousness—the Internal Revenue Service. A boredom, an irresistible beaurocratic authority, that carries with it the ability to bulldoze any citizen within its path. Warning! Non sequitor: On a personal level I find it interesting that one of his characters is Lane Dean (since I share the last name”) and I have a brother named Lane. Another review worth taking a look is Divine Drudgery from the New York Review (May 12, 2011) by Jonathan Raban.
Fate,Time, and Language  show both appeal of Wallace’s work as an intellectual and a literary figure by containing what might normally be considered unpublishable by just about any other contemporary writer (no exaggeration here) because it contains Wallace’s undergraduate philosophy thesis (His English thesis turned out to be his first published novel The Broom of the System) whereby Wallace critiques Richard Taylor’s commonly accepted view on the nature of Free Will. Jay Garfield gives us his perspective of Wallace as a student he helped with his philosophy thesis, “I thought of David as a very talented young philosopher with a writing hobby, and did not realize that he was instead one of the most talented fiction writers of his generation who had a philosophy hobby.”
He’s been called the writer of his generation, but I can’t help wondering if anyone except those writers of ‘his generation’ are reading his masterwork Infinite Jest or his past work. I don’t say this just to be provocative, but I also say it tongue-in-cheek in light of the recent review in the Wall Street Journal by James Campbell of The Pale King who said, “Readers of Wallace born before 1960 are apt to require an extra shot of ­patience to indulge his oeuvre, with its rock-and-roll references, the enthusiasm for trash TV and movies (mirrors of "the culture").” Wallace himself was born in 1962 which would make Wallace, had he survived, almost fifty years old.  It seems by that logic anyone born after 1960 might not have the patience necessary to read James Joyce or Thomas Pynchon for example, but we know this isn’t true either.
On the contrary, a mature reader of literary fiction might be better equipped to read Wallace than the Millenial generation seeing as how the current generation eschews close readings of longer works (even short stories might now be considered long works) in favor of information bites online, Wiki entries, and text messages. This could likely be said about each new generation of readers since television and movies began to claim our attention in direct competition with the book. However, Wallace was not lauding our cultural icons, and rather than providing a critique of the ills of society (which seems to be what critics would like writers to do) his project in part was holding a rather insightful mirror to our culture. I believe there is a touch of the old-fashioned moralist present in his work as welll. For all the experimental manipulations and digressions in Wallace’s work, including his now often referred to footnotes, the message of his prose is essentially rooted in a conventional (for our time) and compassionate morality. In David Foster Wallace-Kenyon Commencement Speech 2005, Wallace advocates empathy for others in an ethical discussion that recalls the Buddhist principals of compassion for other sentient beings as we all seek to rage within and against the machine of the hardworking doldrums.  He goes on to tell the students at Kenyon that “the capital-T truth is about life BEFORE death.” In Don Delillo’s Mao II one young character is said to ‘carry the virus of the future’ which could be taken as an apt description for Wallace’s work. His work is futuristic without being marginalized. In my view, Wallace is likely to end up one of the more closely studied writers since the 1980s. He began as, and remains, a writer for the future the way he continues to influence friends and writers who aim to write in this experimental new wave style.  
On the other hand, I would be the first to admit that there are significant barriers to reading Wallace’s aforementioned Infinite Jest by virtue of its sheer mass. I would argue that nobody likes long, difficult books anymore unless they are made into a movie first. Even the publishing world isn’t crazy about them because of the cost involved unless they are stamped with the name brand recognition guaranteeing justification by virtue of mass production. How will the the novel compete with the immediacy of the image and the virtual environment?  Wallace tackles these questions and more in Infinite Jest. He imagines a future where entire years are subsidized by products such as “The Year of the Depend Undergarment” or “Year of the Whopper” and others. It sounded like science fiction but in that same year (1996) comedian Adam Sandler’s movie Happy Gilmour utilitized blatant product placement in an ironic-appearing self-parody and more recently Days of Our Lives was basically running commercials within their melodramatic scenes for Cheerios, Midol, and Chex Mix.
Wallace’s shorter works might take less time to digest, but they can be so unnerving a sensitive reader might be inclined to turn away. If you think that’s an exaggeration consider Incarnations of Burned Children from Wallace’s 2004 short story collection Oblivion. It’s only three pages long and has no paragraph breaks. It deals with a horrifying accident: an overturned pot of boiling water on to a toddler whose flesh is scalded and the dismay and guilt of the parents of the child.  

Digging back even further into Wallace's work I would point the reader to the short story collection The Girl with the Curious Hair.  This collection was my own introduction to the author and it has some extraordinary pieces in it. Lyndon is a story that if someone had told me I should read a story about Lyndon B. Johnson, the President who was in office when I was born, I wouldn’t have given much thought to the suggestion. However, Wallace captures, what I can guess from footage I’ve seen of Johnson, a fair representation of Johnson’s voice while at the same time Wallace manages by the end of the story to discuss the AIDS epidemic via the story’s narrator, David Boyd, an aide to Johnson—a remarkable achievement. The story opens with a memorable line that I won’t repeat here due to its profanity but one that I would suggest roots the reader in an emphatic reality of “behind-the-scenes” appeal. In Understanding David Foster Wallace by Marhsall Boswell, Boswell asserts “His (Wallace) job in these stories is to use pop culture not as an ironic lense or as a symptom of cultural decline but rather as a regenerative means of communication between himself and his readers . . . despite some of its faults, succeeds as a cogent and prophetic diagnosis of irony and its discontents.”

The last story of the collection is more of a novella than a short story, Westward the Course of Empire takes it’s Way that Boswell claims might be read as a preface to Infinite Jest in so much as it may contain a clue or a working thesis of Wallace’s later masterwork. The main character, Mark Nechtr, wants “to write something that stabs you in the heart” and attempts to name this new brand of fiction: “metalife, metafiction, or gfhrytytu.” He was prescient enough to realize that the self-referential irony in the popular media had reached a nihilsitic tipping point or a kind of “road to nowhere.” In The Afterlife of David Foster Wallace Jennifer Howard quotes Boswell,"The first novel (The Broom of the System) announced very clearly that Wallace wanted to revive the tradition of postmodern maximalism, generally associated with writers like John Barth, William Gaddis, and Thomas Pynchon, but also that he was going to do it in a way that made sense to members of his own generation, who grew up in the desolate aftermath of the 1960s and no longer needed to be shown the hollow hypocrisy of the bourgeois social order . . .”
Be on the lookout for The Legacy of David Foster Wallace, an essay collection, scheduled for publication by the University of Iowa Press in 2012. It will consist of critical essays with thoughts on Wallace by such luminaries as Don DeLillo and Jonathan Franzen. Samuel Cohen, an associate professor of English at our own University of Missouri, and Lee Konstantinou are the volume's co-editors. This should be an interesting collection to look for next year.