othello-and-draftSusan Snyder’s “Othello: A Modern Perspective,” considers the various approaches Shakespeare scholars have offered to the question, what goes wrong? Is it Iago, the inhuman embodiment of evil? Is it Iago, the human villain? Is it Othello, himself? Or is it the social forces of Venice? Though all of these approaches are valid—and as Snyder observes, “[n]either separately nor in conjunction can they offer anything like ‘the whole truth’” (288)—Iago’s actions as an all-too-human have-not, someone who feels left behind, is the answer that resonates in the minds of many of us now.

Our recent campaign season has spotlighted citizens who, like Iago, believe that they have been passed over, and we have witnessed repeatedly the discrepancy between appearance and reality that Iago masterfully exploits. In the first scene of the play, when Iago recounts Othello’s appointment of Cassio as his lieutenant, he observes that Cassio lacks his experience in the field, noting that “Mere prattle without practice / Is all his soldiership” (1.1.27-28) and “Preferment goes by letter and affection / And not by old gradation” (1.1.38-39).  For Iago, it’s another way of saying the system is rigged.

To set things right for himself, “honest” Iago manipulates not only the gullible Roderigo but everyone else, “show[ing] out a flag and sign of love / Which is indeed but sign” (1.1.173-74). As he betrays Roderigo, Cassio, and Othello, even as he publicly conveys the utmost devotion, he also offers the appearance of Desdemona’s handkerchief—first in the hands of Cassio and later in Bianca’s—as the “ocular proof” (3.3.412) of Desdemona’s infidelity.

That ocular proof stokes the jealous rage that leads Othello to murder Desdemona, an irrational act of violence that points to the Moor’s own tragic flaw and indirectly to prevailing social forces. We see Desdemona and Emilia fall victim not only to the husbands who murder them but also to their prescribed roles in Venetian society. Still, if not for Iago, Desdemona and Emilia would live, as would Othello and Roderigo. As Lodovico says to Iago, “This is thy work” (5.2.427).

Iago’s “work,” as Lodovico puts it, is an evil that continues to haunt us, not because it’s inhuman but because it’s all too real. We know the hatred engendered by the have-nots and the ease with which mere appearance can seem to be ocular proof—a problem that’s compounded for us in the digital age, both in politics and in our personal lives. Othello leaves us wondering who our own Iagos may be, not the trolls wreaking havoc on Twitter for all to see, but the BFFs—“I am your own forever” (3.4.546)—stroking our egos even as their private messages poison us.

Works Cited

Mowat, Barbara A. and Paul Werstine, eds. Folger Shakespeare Library: Othello by William Shakespeare. Simon and Schuster, 2009.

Snyder, Susan. “Othello: A Modern Perspective.” Folger Shakespeare Library: Othello by William Shakespeare, edited by Barbara A. Mowat and Paul Werstine, Simon and Schuster, 2009. 287-98.

Sarah Vowell / Bennett Miller

Sarah Vowell / Bennett Miller

Thursday night at Lenoir-Rhyne, Sarah Vowell spoke of herself as a writer who takes her readers on a trip with her. Seeing Vowell interviewed on stage was a similar journey, one that led the audience from her childhood in Montana to her most recent book, Lafayette in the Somewhat Unites States (2015), with digressions along the way on Charlies Angels, the Trail of Tears, Louis Armstrong, The Incredibles, and Paul Gauguin.

When interviewer Mike Collins asked Vowell about her work on This American Life, she spoke of her writing process, noting that although the stories she wrote sounded casual, there wasn’t one from her twelve-year stint on the show (1996-2008) that underwent fewer than sixty-four revisions. Vowell recalled that Ira Glass, producer and host of the show, chided her for her repeated tangents–what she calls shenanigans–reminding her again and again of the need for brevity in radio. Paring her writing for the airwaves taught Vowell that she was better suited to writing books because they gave her room for shenanigans, citing her detour through the Oneida Community in Assassination Vacation.

In response to an audience member’s question about her writing process, Vowell said that it begins while she is travelling. Vowell explained that she takes “voluminous notes” on index cards. Later, when she returns home, she puts the cards on her living room floor and the process of organizing her research begins. The image of Vowell sitting cross-legged in her living room, placing cards on the floor in front of her as if she’s playing Solitaire, reminds me of her earlier remarks about radio, how each of those casual-sounding pieces she wrote was the product of sixty-four or more drafts. The meandering narratives of her books have a casual quality as well, but they’re the product of a highly organized process.

Vowell is one of the featured authors in the Visiting Writers Series as well as the author of this year’s Campus Read, Assassination Vacation. Her interview with WFAE’s Mike Collins was recorded for later broadcast on Charlotte Talks.

Work Cited

Vowell, Sarah. Visiting Writers Series Interview by Mike Collins. 27 Oct. 2016, P.E. Monroe Auditorium, Lenoir-Rhyne U., Hickory, NC.

Off-Broadway promotional poster / wikipedia.org

Off-Broadway promotional poster / wikipedia.org

Sarah Vowell’s Assassination Vacation chronicles her pilgrimage to the sites commemorating the lives and deaths of our first three assassinated presidents–places including the Lincoln Memorial, where she notes that reading his Second Inaugural speech “is to see how Lincoln’s mind worked” (27). Similarly, reading Vowell’s own words shows readers how her mind works. Crafting a narrative that combines memoir, travelogue, revisionist history, and cultural critique, Vowell’s 2005 book recounts her journey in her characteristic roundabout fashion, one that risks frustrating readers who crave a more straightforward narrative. Among the devices that give unity to Vowell’s meandering story are the musicals and songs that she turns to repeatedly, to frame her narrative, to comment on the presidents and their assassins, and to make sense of her morbid obsession.

Vowell’s preface opens in the Berkshires, where she has traveled to visit the home of Chester French, the artist who designed the sculptural centerpiece for the Lincoln Memorial. But the preface doesn’t start with French or with Chesterwood, the site of his house and studio. Instead, Vowell recounts watching a production of Stephen Sondheim’s musical Assassins, beginning her book with these words: “One night last summer, all the killers in my head assembled on a stage in Massachusetts to sing show tunes. There they were—John Wilkes Booth, Charles Guiteau, Leon Czolgosz—in tune and in flesh” (1).

Original production logo /wikipedia.org

Original production logo / wikipedia.org

Chapter One opens in a similar fashion, with Vowell in another theater watching another musical. This time it’s 1776 at Ford’s Theatre, where Vowell observes with her trademark wit that going to watch a play “is like going to Hooters for the food” (21). Her primary reason for being there is to see the site where John Wilkes Booth shot Lincoln. Though she had planned to leave at intermission, Vowell stays for the second act, which dramatizes Adams and Jefferson “yielding to the southerners’ edit” of the Declaration of Independence (23). Vowell’s account of watching 1776 at Ford’s Theatre becomes a link between the founding fathers’ concession and Lincoln’s assassination. In Vowell’s words, “I can look from the stage to Lincoln’s box and back again, and I can see exactly where this compromise in 1776 is pointing: into the back of Lincoln’s head in 1865” (23).

Heroin / genius.com

“Heroin” 45 / genius.com

With Chapter Two, Vowell faces the challenge of depicting a subject far less important and interesting than Lincoln. Writing of our second assassinated president, James Garfield, Vowell admits that “it’s hard to have strong feelings about him” (135). To breathe life into her description of Garfield, Vowell turns to music, likening his diary entry about rearranging his library to “the druggy glow you can hear in Lou Reed’s voice on ‘Heroin’” (135). And she turns again to song when she recounts doctors probing Garfield’s wound with their unsterile fingers, prompting the infection that led to his death. Observing that Garfield might have survived otherwise, Vowell writes: “[A]s Laurie Anderson once put it, “It’s not the bullet that kills you, it’s the hole” (160).

Though Garfield’s assassin, Charles Guiteau, enlivens Chapter Two, the same can’t be said of William McKinley’s assassin, Leon Czolgosz in Chapter Three. Writing of the problem of depicting the sad sack Czolgosz, Vowell turns again to Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins, the musical that opens the book:

Even Stephen Sondheim cannot tart up Leon Czolgosz. Czolgosz is such a sad pathetic character, and by pathetic I mean drowning in pathos, that he is the one psycho killer in the musical Assassins who never gets a laugh. He is as drab and morose as Charles Guiteau is snappy. (214)

In the final chapter, Vowell joins in on the singing briefly, when she takes part in an a capella rendition of “How Great Thou Art.” Singing that hymn at an Easter Sunday service at the Lincoln Memorial reminds Vowell of Elvis’s recording of it, one of her mother’s favorites, which leads Vowell to realize where her preoccupation with presidential killings began: “I can probably trace this whole morbid assassination death trip back to my parents’ record collection. Specifically, Buddy Starcher’s spoken-word LP History Repeats Itself” (252).

“History Repeats Itself” 45 / 45cat.com

The title track of Starcher’s album, which recounts the similarities between the Lincoln and Kennedy assassinations, still sparks something inside her, Vowell observes, because “these creepy historical flukes offer momentary relief from the oppression of chaos and that is not nothing. They give order to the universe. They give meaning” (254). Likewise, Starcher’s song and the others Vowell weaves into her narrative give Assassination Vacation a sense of order and meaning.

If Vowell were writing her book on assassinations now, she might offer a digression on the recent debates, perhaps observing that the first question Elaine Quijano posed of vice presidential candidates Mike Pence and Tim Kaine referenced Lloyd Bentsen’s opening statement in his 1988 debate with Republican vice presidential candidate Dan Quayle: “[T]hat has happened too often in the past. And if that tragedy should occur, we have to step in there without any margin for error, without time for preparation, to take over the responsibility for the biggest job in the world.”

The unnamed tragedy is assassination, of course, reminding viewers of the same uncomfortable truth about history repeating itself, the truth that haunts Vowell’s ears as she ends the book, years before we would find ourselves in our current political landscape—one as unimaginable as rap songs about the first secretary of the treasury.

Surely if Vowell were writing Assassination Vacation now, references to Hamilton would abound. When Hamilton’s writer and star, Lin-Manuel Miranda, hosted Saturday Night Live earlier this month, he said of his Tony and Pulitzer Prize-winning musical that “it’s such a nice escape from all the craziness in our world right now. It’s about two famous New York politicians locked in a dirty, ugly, political, mud-slinging campaign. It’s escapism.” Those words could have been written by Vowell, herself. Escapism, indeed. Not the storyline, sadly, but the sarcasm that gives us some comic relief.

Works Cited

Miranda, Lin-Manuel. Opening Monologue. Saturday Night Live. 8 Oct. 2016. NBC, http://www.nbc.com/saturday-night-live/video/linmanuel-miranda-monologue/3112623. Accessed 10 Oct. 2016.

October 5, 1988 Debate Transcripts: “The Bentsen-Quayle Vice Presidential Debate.” Commission on Presidential Debates, http://www.debates.org/index.php?page=october-5-1988-debate-transcripts. Accessed 10 Oct. 2016.

Vowell, Sarah. Assassination Vacation. Simon and Schuster, 2005.

Marlon James / macalester.edu

Marlon James / macalester.edu

Only a few hours after the announcement of this year’s Nobel Prize for literature, novelist Marlon James, recipient of the 2015 Man Booker prize, took the stage at Lenoir-Rhyne’s Belk Centrum and said that he was “very excited” about Bob Dylan’s win. James questioned whether the people who opposed the choice of Dylan had heard much of his music. Many ancient epics were written to be sung, James observed, and he challenged the audience to “listen to ‘It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)’” and “tell me it’s not literature.”

Turning from Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize to his own writing, James—one of the featured authors in Lenoir-Rhyne’s Visiting Writers Series—said that the first sentence that he wrote of his third novel, A Brief History of Seven Killings (2014), was now on page 458 and joked that the 680-plus page novel was actually an 800-page book, but he reduced the font and narrowed the margins.

James said that he had begun by writing a novel about a really sloppy hit man who was also in love, but around page fifty he ran into a dead end. After creating additional characters and running into more dead ends, James concluded that he was writing a string of failed novellas. Then he had a Eureka moment: He reread William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying (1930), narrated by fifteen characters, and realized that he was writing about the failed dream of the Jamaican 1960s, and that one voice alone could not tell the story. James also credited James McEllroy’s novel American Tabloid (1995) as a major influence on the writing of A Brief History of Seven Killings.

Among the excerpts James read from the novel include ones featuring the ghost of the dead Jamaican politician Arthur Jennings and immigrant Dorcas Palmer—whose name isn’t really Dorcas Palmer—who works a series of no-questions-asked jobs as a care giver in New York. They are the branches of the novel, James said, noting the book began with them rather than the trunk—though it may seem like the opposite, that the book began with Marley at the center.

James noted that one of the difficulties of writing about Marley was that by the time of the 1976 assassination attempt, Marley was already a literary device of sorts. For me growing up, James noted, he was a series of news reports: Marley is on tour, Marley has been shot, Marley has cancer . . . .

To guide him as he wrote around the dying man at the center of his novel, Marlon James turned to the classic Esquire magazine story “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold” (1966), a profile that Gay Talese had been assigned to write as an interview with Frank Sinatra, but the singer refused to talk to him. Talese’s solution to the problem was to talk to everyone around Sinatra. Similarly, instead of moving in close, James’s narrators circle Marley in his last days.

In response to an audience member’s questions about knowing when you’ve finished revising, James said that he knows early on in the process when he’s done, but that it takes him four or five months to admit it. James said that A Brief History of Seven Killings doesn’t end with a flourish or with a profound statement about the human condition; it doesn’t end as much as it stops. He kept working on the book until a voice in his head told him, you finished four months ago.

One of the problems with writing stories, James said, is that we start too early and end too late. James recounted that once while submitting copies of the manuscript of his first novel, John Crow’s Devil, that he was short on paper and money, so he sent out a copy without the first and the last twenty pages. The agent who read it, James said, didn’t say that it started too late or ended too early.

Reflecting on James’s observations about writing—beginning with his opening remarks about Bob Dylan—brings to mind the role of music in his own writing, starting with the lines from Captain Beefheart’s “Dachau Blues,” lyrics that serve as the epigraph for his debut novel, John Crows’ Devil. Those song lyrics are some of the first words we see in the book, but it’s likely that neither those words nor the words of the chapter that they introduce are the first ones he put on the page, evidenced by the fact that the first sentence he wrote for A Brief History of Seven Killings appears on page 458.

Beginnings and endings are difficult, Marlon James reminds us, though in the case of these words about his Thursday-night presentation, I knew from the start that I would begin with his opening remarks on Bob Dylan. (How I would begin was another matter altogether, and so was where and how I would end.) Of A Brief History of Seven Killings, James said that the novel doesn’t end as much as it stops. Taking a cue from him, I will stop here, reflecting on the insight that his remarks shed on his first novel—one that my students and I studied earlier this semester—one that begins with the chapter “The End” and ends with the chapter “The Beginning.”

Work Cited

James, Marlon. “An Evening with Marlon James.” Visiting Writers Series, 13 Oct. 2016, Belk Centrum, Lenoir-Rhyne U., Hickory, NC.

 

 

Readings for English 131, Fall 2016

Marlon James, speaking at Lenoir-Rhyne last Thursday: “Listen to ‘It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)’ and tell me it’s not literature.”

And from Rob Sheffield’s Rolling Stone feature:

The best argument for Dylan’s Nobel Prize comes from Ralph Waldo Emerson, even though he died a century before Shot of Love. His 1850 essay ‘Shakespeare; or the Poet,’ from the book Representative Men, works as a cheat sheet to Dylan. For Emerson, Shakespeare’s greatness was to exploit the freedoms of a disreputable format, the theater: ‘Shakespeare, in common with his comrades, esteemed the mass of old plays, waste stock, in which any experiment could be freely tried. Had the prestige which hedges about a modern tragedy existed, nothing could have been done. The rude warm blood of the living England circulated in the play, as in street-ballads.’

This is a key point–Shakespeare was a writer/actor/manager hustling in the commercial theater racket for live crowds. He didn’t publish his plays–didn’t even keep written copies. Once it was onstage, he was on to the next one. (After his death, his friends had to cobble the First Folio together, mostly from working scripts, hence the deplorable state of his texts.) Low prestige meant constant forward motion. The theater was becoming a national passion, ‘but not a whit less considerable, because it was cheap.’ He aimed his poetry at the groundlings: ‘It must even go into the world’s history, that the best poet led an obscure and profane life, using his genius for the public amusement.’

Dylan didn’t write many books either–his songs came out of that same ‘rude warm blood.’

Works Cited

James, Marlon. “An Evening with Marlon James.” Visiting Writers Series, 13 Oct. 2016, Belk Centrum, Lenoir-Rhyne U., Hickory, NC.

Sheffield, Rob. “Why Bob Dylan Deserves His Nobel Prize.”  Rolling Stone, 13 Oct. 2016,          http://www.rollingstone.com/music/features/why-bob-dylan-deserves-his-nobel-prize-w444799

“The Preacher and the Apostle,” one of the early chapters in Marlon James’s novel John Crow’s Devil,  offers the first glimpse of the Jamaican village of Gibbeah and the man who comes to own it. Aloyisius Garvey, who renames the village Garveyville, dictates that every house be red, like his. Though people forget “with time and grime” (26) and call it black, the plantation-style house remains red and its dark curtains remain closed, “reveal[ing] no secrets” (26). Although the description of Gibbeah lacks the graphic detail of the novel’s often nightmarish scenes, it stands as one of the most haunting moments in the book for its foreshadowing of the horrors hidden in plain sight.

"High Plains Drifter" / horrorcultfilms.co.ok

“High Plains Drifter” / horrorcultfilms.co.ok

For readers versed in revisionist westerns, Gibbeah may evoke images of the red town of Lago in High Plains Drifter, where the buildings, like those of Gibbeah, are painted by decree. And like the town of Lago, the village of Gibbeah comes under the rule of a figure seeking vengeance. In the  film it’s the avenging angel who paints the town red. In James’s novel he returns–whether fallen angel or Antichrist–to a village stained red a generation earlier.

Late in the novel, after readers learn the true identity of the “stranger” who comes to town, it’s evident how the malignant neglect and abuse of Garvey’s rule gives rise to the totalitarian regime of his “nephew,” Apostle Lucas York: The villagers and their spiritual leader, Pastor Hector Bligh, fail to see, both through ignorance and turning a blind eye. As York says to Bligh after he takes the Pastor prisoner: “The only reason that man [Garvey] hired you is because you were as blind then as you are now” (212).

Even the Widow Greenfield, “the only one who eye no blind” (193), as Lucinda says, turns a blind eye to Garvey in defense:

He [Garvey] owned every red building including the church. Surely he could drive the Apostle out of the village and put Gibbeah back where it used to be. She thought for a minute about what that meant. Hypocrisy was as much a shield for her as anybody else. Pretense was protection. (183)

But the widow doesn’t know the extent of Garvey’s savage cruelty until she sees it documented in the sepia photographs that she discovers among the casualties: “In all her years of suspecting Mr. Garvey of sodomy and seeing his several nephews, she had never married the two. Her mind traveled to places she had not thought thinkable” (208).

Finally seeing the unthinkable as the widow sees it heightens the haunting quality of the first description of the village. Revealing the secrets once hidden in plain sight, Marlon James’s unflinching look at Gibbeah sends readers’ minds to places we’d rather not go, but it’s a crucial journey, one that leads not only to the boys and girls of Gibbeah—caught as they try to scramble over the fence—but also to the children of Aleppo, victims of an all-too-real conflict, one we must hope will end, as Gibbeah’s does, with survivors poised to tell the tale.

Work Cited

James, Marlon. John Crow’s Devil. Akashic. 2005.

 

Early illustrated writing c. 1974

Early illustrated writing c. 1974

Three pictures, one-hundred words, minimum: That’s what I asked of my students, and of myself, for the introductory blog assignment for the semester. “Rather than trying to tell your whole life story,” I wrote in the assignment,  “focus on one aspect of your life or one interest of yours.” It sounds simple enough, doesn’t it? But when I sat down to complete the assignment, words initially failed me. As I tried to compose a draft in my mind, what came to me instead were these lines from Patricia Hampl’s essay “Red Sky in the Morning”:

How much reality can subject-verb-object bear on the frail shoulders of the sentence? The sigh within the sentence is more like this: I could tell you stories–if only stories could tell what I have in me to tell. (178)

Choosing to include those lines of Hampl’s reflects my passion for writing, while the words themselves illustrate the struggle of writing–even for those of us who identify ourselves as writers.

Heat ms

1989 manuscript with notes from my teacher. The story, which she titled “Heat,” was published in 1991.

At the beginning of last semester, when I projected my own blog on the screen for the first time, one of the students remarked on the tagline: “Writer, Teacher.”

Have you written any books? she asked.

Written, not published, I started to say (“I could tell you stories . . .”), but instead I said, “I am not an author of any books, but I identify myself as a writer because I am someone for whom writing has always been a way of making sense of the world.

Review of "Go Set a Watchman" (2015)

Review of “Go Set a Watchman” (2015)

 

 

 

 

Work Cited

Hampl, Patricia. “Red Sky in the Morning.” Imaginative Writing: The Elements of Craft. Ed. Janet Burroway. 3rd ed. Longman, 2011.