Archive for November, 2015

One-hundred and seventy-nine words (29 lines) and the thousands that inform them.

One-hundred and seventy-nine words (29 lines) and the thousands that inform them.

When I was fourteen years old and first saw Bernard Pomerance’s The Elephant Man as a teleplay on ABC, the lack of makeup and prosthetics made no sense to me. If you could make Joseph Merrick look monstrous—as John Hurt did in David Lynch’s film—then why wouldn’t you? Only much later would I understand that Pomerance was more concerned with the grotesqueness of British imperialism and Victorian society, which is why his Merrick doesn’t look like Lynch’s.

Though I didn’t comprehend the playwright’s vision at the time, I kept watching because I had to know what happened next—what would transpire between Merrick and Mrs. Kendal, the actress who befriends him and whom Merrick asks to be his mistress? Mrs. Kendal wouldn’t consent; that I knew, but I also knew that she had grown to care for Merrick and was saddened by the knowledge that his hideous deformities would prevent him from experiencing physical intimacy of any kind, much less sexual intercourse. As I watched Mrs. Kendal speak to Merrick, I realized that no matter what I secretly thought of my awkward adolescent self, that I would never be perceived as the freak that Merrick was. That one day I would love and be loved. And when Mrs. Kendal tells Merrick that she has seen photographs of him—of his naked body, taken for display at lectures—and starts to undress so that he can see her breasts, I knew that I was witnessing something that was considered scandalous but that was, in fact, morally just.

Those moments between Merrick and Kendal that now replay so vividly in my mind mark a moment in my moral education. For decades they’d continued to dwell in some far corner of my imagination, waiting to rise to my consciousness again, as they did recently when I had the opportunity to act in a local production of The Elephant Man. When I was cast in the show, I seized the chance not only as an opportunity to perform but also as an occasion to research Joseph Merrick so that my work on stage would be informed by my study of his life.

The bibliography that follows includes the play, itself—which first stirred my interest in Merrick—the memoir of his doctor, Frederick Treves, and two book-length studies that revise and expand Merrick’s story: Ashley Montagu’s exploration of his psyche, The Elephant Man: A Study in Human Dignity; and the first comprehensive biography of Merrick, The True History of the Elephant Man.

Though Treves aimed to tell Merrick’s story as accurately as possible, as Montagu notes, “his attempt to reconstruct Merrick’s past was to a great extent erroneous” (69). Nevertheless, his memoir still offers readers what no other writing about Merrick can: a look at him through the eyes of his own doctor. And as Michael Howell and Peter Ford observe in their biography: “Of all of Treves’ writings, ‘The Elephant Man’ is undoubtedly the one that will continue to be read long after the others are forgotten” (164).

Whether these annotations will serve as preliminary writing for a larger project, I cannot say. But I can say that as I have stepped on stage to enter Merrick’s world, I have carried with me what I’ve learned.

Annotated Bibliography

Howell, Michael and Peter Ford. The True History of the Elephant Man. 1980. New York: Skyhorse, 2010. Print.

The first comprehensive biography of Joseph “John” Carey Merrick, The True History of the Elephant Man, co-written by physician Michael Howell and editor and writer Peter Ford, chronicles the life of Merrick, beginning with his initial encounter with Frederick Treves, at the storefront across from the London Hospital in 1884, then turning back to his birth in Leicester in 1862. Howell and Ford document the death of Merrick’s mother, Mary Jane Merrick, née Potterton, from pneumonia in 1873, his years of labor at the Leicester Union Workhouse, his exhibition—by showmen Sam Torr, Tom Noonan, and Sam Roper—and his final years in residence at the London Hospital under the care of surgeon Frederick Treves.

Howell and Ford’s research reveals that Merrick chose not to disclose to Treves essential details about his family background, namely that his mother and his sister, Marion Eliza, were both “crippled” (42, 46), and they clarify that Treves’ error regarding Merrick’s first name was intentional, citing the manuscript of Treves’ memoir in which he crossed out “Joseph” and replaced it with “John.”

The True History of the Elephant Man also addresses the question of Merrick’s condition—with neurofibromatosis and Proteus syndrome as the prevailing diagnoses—noting that to the frustration of future researchers, the skin samples of Merrick’s preserved at the London Hospital dried out when the hospital staff was evacuated during World War II. Dry rot in the hospital, a consequence of damage from the bombings, affected the specimens, which were subsequently burned.

Montagu, Ashley. The Elephant Man: A Study in Human Dignity. 1971. Lafayette: Acadian, 2001. Print.

In The Elephant Man: A Study in Human Dignity, anthropologist Ashley Montagu explores how Joseph Merrick developed a healthy personality despite the “reality of his physical hideousness” and the “cruelly lacerating expressions of horror and revulsion by all who beheld him” (100). With chapters devoted to Merrick’s doctor, Frederick Treves, and the London Hospital, as well as chapters on maternal love and personality development, Montagu’s study provides both historical and psychological context for Merrick’s story.

Observing that Treve’s two-paragraph account of Merrick’s early years seems “utterly incompatible with [his] loveable personality” (85), Montagu asserts that Merrick was not abandoned by his mother as Treves suggests in his memoir. In the third edition, published in 1996, Montagu notes that his views on Merrick’s mother were confirmed by Michael Howard and Peter Ford in The True History of the Elephant Man.

Pomerance, Bernard. The Elephant Man. New York: Grove, 1979. Print.

Though its time frame corresponds with that of Frederick Treves’ memoir of Joseph “John” Merrick, Bernard Pomerance’s play departs from Treves’ account, reimagining the last four years of Merrick’s life in twenty-one short scenes. Throughout the play, the actor portraying Merrick wears no makeup or prosthetics to alter his appearance, a stipulation of Pomerance’s introductory note, where he asserts that any attempt to reproduce the Elephant Man’s grotesque physical deformities would be both “counterproductive” and “distracting” (v).  Pomerance fashions a fictional relationship between Merrick and the actress Madge Kendal (who raised funds for Merrick’s care and arranged for him to attend the theatre but never met him), employs dream sequences to explore the unconscious of Merrick and Treves, and uses as a central metaphor Merrick’s building of a cardboard model of St. Philip’s Church, a model he did in fact construct with his one good hand during his stay at the London Hospital.

Treves, Frederick. “The Elephant Man.” The Elephant Man and Other Reminisces. London: Cassel, 1923. 1-37. Print.

Frederick Treves’ memoir “The Elephant Man” chronicles the final years in the life of Joseph “John” Carey Merrick, the grotesquely deformed man who came under the care of Treves two years after the doctor examined Merrick at the London Hospital.

Beginning in 1884 with Treves first encounter with Merrick as a freak-show attraction at a storefront across from the hospital, the narrative details Treves’ plan for Merrick to be transported across the street for examination—under his cloak and hat, lest he be mobbed or beaten—Treves’ reunion with Merrick after his dismissal from a traveling show in Belgium, and Merrick’s subsequent residence at the London Hospital, where he lived until his death in April 1890.

 

Chuck Klosterman / visitingwriters.lr.edu

Chuck Klosterman / visitingwriters.lr.edu

To introduce my students to the writing of pop culture critic Chuck Klosterman—last night’s featured writer in Lenoir-Rhyne’s Visiting Writers Series—I assigned “My Zombie, Myself: Why Modern Life Feels Rather Undead.” Of the dozens of columns and essays of Klosterman’s I could have assigned, I chose his commentary on zombies in part because of the continuing popularity of zombies in general, and in particular the comic-book-turned-TV series The Walking Dead, now joined on AMC by its prequel, Fear the Walking Dead. I also chose “My Zombie, Myself” because it’s a well-constructed argument, one that makes the same moves that we make in academic writing.

In class on Wednesday, my students collaboratively examined “My Zombie, Myself,” identified its components, and summarized the essay’s argument with their answers to these questions:

  1. What is the standard view of zombies?
  2. What is Klosterman’s claim about them?
  3. What is Klosterman’s support for his claim?
  4. What naysayers or counterargument does Klosterman address?
  5. What does Klosterman write to convey why it matters? (Who cares why zombies are the monster of the moment?)

As the students in my 8 a.m. class collaboratively composed their summaries, I drafted this one of my own:

In ‘My Zombie, Myself: Why Modern Life Feels Rather Undead,’ Chuck Klosterman challenges the standard view that the monster of the moment personifies our unconscious fears, claiming instead that battling the undead provides us with an allegory for our daily lives. In Klosterman’s words, ‘[t]he principal downside to any zombie  attack is that the zombies will never stop coming; the principal downside to life is that you will never be finished with whatever it is that you do.’ To those who contend that zombies have merely replaced vampires as the current it-monster, Klosterman says their argument is deceptive.  He maintains that the Twilight series isn’t about vampires but about ‘nostalgia for teenage chastity, the attractiveness of its film cast and the fact that contemporary fiction consumers tend to prefer long serialized novels that can be read rapidly.’ Klosterman reminds us that our zombie fixation matters because they “come at us endlessly (and thoughtlessly),” like all of the annoyances of life, but we can manage them.

Last night I was reminded of Klosterman’s claim about the popularity of zombies—how they’re an allegory for our daily lives—when interviewer Mike Collins, host of WFAE’s Charlotte Talks, asked him about the continuing popularity of the reality show Survivor. In response to Collins’ question—why is it still so popular after so many years?—Klosterman said that what you see over and over in Survivor is the elimination of the oldest and the weakest first, then you see the elimination of the strongest, the contestants who are perceived as the biggest threats. What Survivor really rewards is mediocrity, Klosterman said, and that’s something that we see in our own lives.

Near the end of the interview—which covered topics ranging from Klosterman’s childhood in North Dakota, to his work at ESPN and Spin, to his interviews with Taylor Swift and Tom Brady, to the presidential candidates—Klosterman spoke about his writing process. I think that most writers come up with a thesis and then write about it, he said. What I do is write about what interests me and then look for a thesis.

Klosterman’s method is far more common than he realizes. It’s the one I use, and the one I encourage my students to use when their assignments give them the opportunity to see their interests “through academic eyes” (Laff qtd. in Graff 250).

Works Cited

Graff, Gerald. “Hidden Intellectualism.” “They Say/I Say”: The Moves That Matter in Academic Writing. Eds. Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein. 3rd ed. New York: Norton, 2014. 244-51. Print.

Klosterman, Chuck. “My Zombie, Myself: Why Modern Life Feels Rather Undead.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 3 Dec. 2010. Web. 11 Nov. 2015.