Archive for the ‘Reading’ Category

In Janet Maslin’s New York Times review of The Devil in the White City, she claims that Erik Larson avoids the risk of “turning [the book] into a random compendium.” For all of his density of detail, Larson does manage to avoid that risk, creating instead a gripping dual narrative—one that succeeds, as Maslin asserts that it does—but not by using what Maslin cites as tactics that might ordinarily seem “alarming.” Rather the techniques that Larson employs are among the very building blocks of contemporary narrative.

Chief among Larson’s most successful narrative strategies is his cross cutting, both between the dual storylines of the book (those of the Devil and the White City of the title) and between characters. One of his most compelling uses of cross cutting occurs in the chapter “Claustrophobia,” where Larson deftly shifts from the point of view of serial of killer H. H. Holmes, the devil of the title, to that of one of his victims, Anna “Nannie” Williams. In the first paragraphs of the chapter, Holmes and Anna are together in his office, where he asks her “if she would mind going into the adjacent room, the walk-in vault, to retrieve for him a document he had left inside” (294). Anna complies, and thereafter the point of view shifts between Anna inside the vault, believing “the door had closed by accident” (294), and Holmes standing outside the door, listening for the panic to come “as it always did” (295).

Readers witnessing the events leading up to Anna’s death do not stop to ask: How can Larson know what happened? Though they know in the back of their minds that only Holmes and Anna themselves could know what transpired, Larson’s dramatic cross cutting draws them so close to both the victim and her killer that they experience those moments as Holmes and Anna do.

In his endnotes, Larson addresses his reasons for depicting Anna’s murder as he did. Based on police speculation that Holmes killed both Anna and her sister, Minnie, in his vault, an earlier chronicler of Holmes’ exploits—Harold Schechter, author of Depraved (1994)—proposed that Holmes walked into the vault with Anna: “Grasping Nannie by the hand, he led her toward the vault” (Schechter qtd. in Larson 416). Rather than depicting the events as Schechter did, Larson presents Holmes sending Anna into the vault on a false errand because that scenario, in Larson’s words, “would have suited more closely his temperament” (416).

Whether Holmes sent Anna into his vault on a false errand, Larson’s compelling rendering of it exemplifies how the author employs the dramatic effects of fiction—not tactics that are “alarming” as Maslin claims, but ones that writers have commonly applied to narrative nonfiction for more than fifty years, since the publication of Truman Capote’s groundbreaking  account of the Clutter family murders in In Cold Blood. And like In Cold Blood, The Devil in the White City presents a true crime story with the narrative arc of a novel. But Larson’s book is more ambitious and broader in scope than Capote’s. Ultimately, The Devil in the White City is a hybrid of true crime and popular history—the gruesome murders of a serial killer juxtaposed with the construction of the magical white city that inspired Walt Disney and L. Frank Baum. For readers fascinated by the minds of criminals and visionary architects, it’s a page turner. And for writers drawn to the challenge of giving facts the appeal of fiction, it offers a blueprint.

Works Cited

Larson, Erik. The Devil in the White City. Vintage, 2004.

Maslin, Janet. “Add a Serial Murderer to 1893 Chicago’s Opulent Overkill.” Review of The Devil in the White City, by Erik Larson, The New York Times, 10 Feb. 2003, http://www.nytimes.com, Accessed 26 Apr. 2017.

 

Scorsese and DiCaprio / Paramount

Last month, when Erik Larson cancelled his campus visit to Lenoir-Rhyne, our study of The Devil in the White City took an unexpected turn. No longer would our last weeks of reading be informed by the author’s own commentary. As I asked myself how my students and I might proceed in the absence of Larson, it occurred to me that the film adaptation in development could be the source of a series of assignments. Subsequently, I crafted a research exercise, an individual blog post assignment, and a follow-up collaborative blog assignment that involved looking ahead to the upcoming film while looking back at the pages of Larson’s book for textual support for possible casting choices.

Reading the cast recommendations that my students’ produced–each student’s individual choices as well as the expanded proposals that they produced collaboratively–revealed a level of detail and engagement with the subject that many of their previous short assignments lacked. Notably, most of their individual blog posts far exceeded the 150-word minimum length requirement.

Though I regret that my students and I didn’t have the opportunity to see Larson, I am grateful that his cancellation led me to rethink my approach to teaching The Devil in the White City.

The paragraphs that follow offer my version of the assignment: the casting recommendations that I wrote along with my students.


Martin Scorsese’s adaptation of Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City—now in development at Paramount—will star Leonardo DiCaprio, an actor well suited to play the devil of the title, H. H. Holmes, not because he possesses the same “striking blue eyes” (35), as the charismatic serial killer—though he does—but instead because of DiCaprio’s ability to embody charming characters who trade in deception. Larson’s descriptions of Holmes as someone who could “bewitch men and women alike” (146) and who had “a talent for deflecting scrutiny” (364) bring to mind roles from his previous collaborations with Scorsese—notably Jordan Belfort of The Wolf of Wall Street—as well as Frank Abagnale, Jr. from Steven Spielberg’s Catch Me if You Can.

While DiCaprio—who bought the film rights to Larson’s book in 2010—is set to play Holmes, the rest of the film’s casting remains undetermined, or at least unknown to outsiders. One possible contender for Daniel Burnham, the other figure at the center of Larson’s book, is Hugh Bonneville. The Downton Abbey actor’s  ability to play a “decisive, blunt, and cordial” (35) figure is evidenced in his portrayal of that other turn-of-century character: Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham. And Larson’s depiction of Burnham as a man who “symbolized all that stood in the way of [young architect Louis] Sullivan’s emerging ethos” recalls the tension between Grantham and his son-in-law, Tom Branson (Allen Leech).

For Frederick Law Olmsted, chief landscape architect and elder statesmen, Scorsese might turn to Anthony Hopkins. Though Hopkins’ frame is not slight, as Larson describes Olmsted’s (53), his face does fit the description of Olmsted’s as “worn and gray, except for his eyes, which gleamed beneath his skull like marbles of lapis” (113). More importantly, with his signature quiet intensity, Hopkins could masterfully convey Olmsted’s struggle as a visionary figure—a benevolent version of Westworld’s Dr. Ford—striving for his field to be “recognized as a distinct branch of the fine arts” (50), as he transforms the landscape of Jackson Park.

Although Dora Root, wife of John Root (Burnham’s partner in architecture) appears only briefly in the book, the passage in which Larson recounts her mixed emotions upon seeing the White City—finding the park “infinitely sad” but “entrancing” all at once (253)—is among the most poignant that Larson writes. As the widow witnessing the fair that her husband didn’t live to see, Laura Linney could deliver a nuanced performance akin to hers as Abigail Adams, beloved wife and advisor to the second president, in the HBO miniseries John Adams. And Linney’s co-star in John Adams, Paul Giamatti, could adeptly portray detective Frank Geyer, who “never tired” (349) in his investigation of Holmes’ crimes, echoing Giamatti’s role in The Illusionist as Uhl, the police inspector who doggedly pursued Eisenheim (Edward Norton).

Paul Dano / twitter.com

Prendergast / chicagonow.com

Lastly, Paul Dano comes to mind as an apt candidate for the role of Patrick Prendergast, the young Irish immigrant whose murder of Carter Henry Harrison turns the fair’s closing ceremony into a memorial for the slain Chicago mayor. The meltdown that Dano exhibited as Dwayne Hoover in Little Miss Sunshine, when Dwayne’s sister, Olive (Abigail Breslin) reveals to him that he can’t become a pilot (because he’s colorblind), illustrates Dano’s ability to convincingly play the unstable—and eventually delusional assassin—in his “accelerating mental decline” (183).

Work Cited

Larson, Erik. The Devil in the White City. Vintage, 2004.


Scorsese’s choices will likely differ from the ones that my students and I have presented, but the process, itself, of returning to the pages of Larson’s book to explore casting possibilities has offered a valuable exercise in textual analysis, one I may return to in future semesters. Even if the books that my students and I study aren’t slated for film production–and many of them will not be–we can still ask the question, whom would I cast? as a starting point for exercising our imaginations along with our intellects.

Dwayne Betts’ A Question of Freedom chronicles his development as a writer during his years behind bars for a carjacking he committed at sixteen. Betts’ memoir pulls readers into the cells of the prisons that housed him, places where, in Betts’ words, “I have lived things I will not recover from” (176), but also where he observes that he “found creativity” (63). The knowledge that Betts discovered his voice behind bars prompts a troublesome question: Would he have found it elsewhere? Whether he would have become a writer outside of prison remains unclear. There is however, certainty in this: As a man who became a writer in prison, his writing and incarceration are inextricably linked. Betts’ testament to that, his memoir, tells not only the story of his prison sentence but also the story of the words of others coming to shape his own story and leading him to find his voice as a poet. For all that he shows his readers of prison, Betts’ memoir is ultimately more about the transformative power of art.

In the chapter “Joseph’s Hand,” Betts meditates on the unconventional drawing style of another inmate, a young man whose pen scratches lead Betts to see art in a new way:

I went to prison and found creativity I’d never thought to search for on the streets. I had been there for a few months and ran into Joseph, drawing in a way that broke down all of my ideas of what a picture should look like and what it should do. (63)

Joseph’s drawing was a revelation to Betts, what he describes as a “symbol for the idea that art can translate, subconsciously and consciously, your world into your images” (64).

Later, Betts finds his own path as an artist after someone slips a copy of Dudley Randall’s anthology The Black Poets under his cell door. As he reads Randall’s book in solitary confinement, he discovers that his desperation and isolation enable him to see the words on the page as he has never seen them before. In his own words, “[s]olitary confinement gave me a gift I could have gotten nowhere else: the opportunity to start looking for the sense behind the words” (165). For Betts, The Black Poets serves both as a groundbreaking influence and a motif in A Question of Freedom. The first sentence of the memoir alludes to Etheridge Knight’s For Freckled-Faced Gerald”—a poem Betts first encounters in Randall’s anthology—paraphrasing its lines, “sixteen years hadn’t even done / a good job on his voice” (6-7). And lines from Knight’s poem also serve as the epigraph for the second part of the memoir.

Near the end of A Question of Freedom, Betts reflects on The Black Poets as he recalls receiving a response to a letter that he had written to the poet Tony Hoagland:

When I’d gotten my first book of poems, The Black Poets by Dudley Randall, I was a seventeen-year-old kid in a solitary confinement cell wondering if he was going to survive prison. By the time Mr. Hoagland wrote me, I was a few years away from release and still standing. (217)

Readers unfamiliar with The Black Poets cannot see initially how importantly that volume of poetry figures in the pages of Betts’ memoir, but slowly its significance becomes clear, just as the scratches of Joseph’s pen slowly—and seemingly miraculously—become a hand. The lines of Betts’ memoir serve as testament not only to his survival but also to the troubling truth that prison, for all of its harrowing experiences, gave Betts a writing life, endowing him with gift for “[w]eaving prison’s hurt into poetry” (165).

Would Betts have become a writer without the creativity that he discovered in prison and the way of reading that he found in solitary confinement?  Betts’ memoir yields no clear answer to that question, nor does it offer a definitive answer to why he made the mistake—the moment of aberrant behavior—that led to more than eight years behind bars. Prison, as Betts observes, “blossoms contradictions” (181). The gift he found there, one of  “carving a voice” (123) remains one of those contradictions, one that will likely remain in the minds of readers long after they have followed Betts out of the pages of his memoir to a place where many inmates will never return.

Works Cited

Betts, R. Dwayne. A Question of Freedom. Avery, 2009.

Knight, Etheridge. “For Freckled-Faced Gerald.” The Black Poets. Ed. Dudley Randall. Bantam, 1971. p. 205.

 

R. Dwayne Betts / Rachel Eliza Griffiths

R. Dwayne Betts / Rachel Eliza Griffiths

In the first paragraphs of Dwayne Betts’ memoir, A Question of Freedom (2009), he recounts his ride to the Fairfax County jail after his arrest for carjacking: a “certifiable” crime in Virginia, which meant that then-sixteen-year-old Betts would be treated as an adult under state law. Last Thursday night when Betts took the stage at Lenoir-Rhyne, he began by reading those paragraphs, returning to the backseat of that police car, where “[e]verything near enough for me to touch gleamed with the color of violence” (3). After reading from his memoir, Betts turned to his collections of poems, Shahid Reads His Own Palm (2010) and Bastards of the Reagan Era (2015), alternating his readings with stories of his years in prison and his writing. He expressed his concern that some people cited his memoir as evidence that prison benefited him, because he had finished his high school education behind bars; and since leaving, he had completed his undergraduate degree at the University of Maryland, an MFA in Creative Writing at Warren-Wilson, and a law degree at Yale. To see his post-incarceration successes as evidence that his years behind bars benefited him, Betts said, was a misinterpretation. Following his Q&A with the audience, Betts concluded by saying that he’d been desperate and lucky–“but sometimes desperate and lucky works out.”

Among the anecdotes that Betts shared with the audience was one focusing on his answer to a question about one of his poems. A reader asked him why an otherwise innocuous poem ended with an image of crack cocaine. To illustrate why he ended the poem that way, Betts turned to August Wilson’s play Fences, telling the audience how the character Troy tries to explain his adultery to his wife, Rose, by likening his decision to a moment in a baseball game. He’s wrong, Betts said, but it’s the only way Troy knows how to try to communicate what he means. In Betts’ words, “sometimes you only have what you have to explain the world.”

Betts’ memoir isn’t an easy read, showing as it does what a life behind bars can do to the mind and the body. But it also tells the story of the power of the written word, how books sustained Dwayne Betts and led him to become a writer, “carv[ing] a voice out of the air” (123). Though many of my students aren’t drawn to writing or to reading books, I believe that the experience of studying  A Question of Freedom and hearing Betts speak has deepened their understanding of the vital role that reading and writing can play in their lives.

Work Cited

Betts, R. Dwayne. A Question of Freedom.  Avery, 2009.

othello-and-draftSusan Snyder’s “Othello: A Modern Perspective,” considers the various approaches Shakespeare scholars have offered to the question, what’s the source of the tragedy? 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 just the trolls wreaking havoc on Twitter for all to see, but also the BFFs—“I am your own forever” (3.4.546)—stroking our egos even as their private messages poison us.

Works Cited

Shakespeare, William. Othello. Ed. Barbara A. Mowat and Paul Werstine. Folger Shakespeare Library Edition, 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. pp. 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.