Posted in Southern Literature, Teaching, Writing

Too Many Words: Reflections on Research

I wrote my first research paper in seventh grade. All of us in Mr. Lord’s English class were required to select a subject of our choice, perhaps the subject had to be a historical figure. Whatever the case, I chose Albert Einstein. I remember sitting at the small, drop-front desk in my bedroom, printing sentence after sentence on three-by-five index cards. Mr. Lord had told us in class that we should limit each card to one fact. One of my most vivid memories of that project is the sight of my large, uneven letters spilling over onto the back of the cards. What I construed as one fact wouldn’t fit on one side.

I was probably as unclear about what constituted a single fact as I was about the goal of the assignment itself. I knew that I was conducting research on a scientific genius, but what was my writing supposed to do?

In the process of writing too many words on my index cards, I came across this detail that stopped me in my tracks: When Einstein was a young child, he was perceived as slow-witted. It seemed preposterous that anyone could believe that the theoretical physicist who developed the theory of relativity was stupid; however, I was also aware of the discrepancy between appearance and reality. I didn’t think that I was the same person that others saw when they looked at me. I imagined, as perhaps all adolescents do, that I would never be truly understood, just as I would never truly understand what I was supposed to write about Albert Einstein.

A little more than ten years later, I was walking across the main quad at Hollins College when Professor Dillard stopped me and told me that my paper on The Monk by Matthew Gregory Lewis was one of the best analyses he’d ever read by a student. Stunned and pleased, I thanked him, thinking of how the process of writing that essay had felt different to me, as if something that I needed to achieve in a piece of academic writing had slowly come into focus. I was a graduate student in creative writing then, so most of my writing for my courses was fiction. Yet the years of studying literature and criticism as an undergraduate had led me to an understanding that somehow only surfaced when I wrote that essay for Professor Dillard.

My next breakthrough came about four years later, when the process of writing became more than the act of fulfilling an assignment for a Ph.D. seminar. I was reading studies of contemporary Southern writing and sensed that something was missing. That something was my own analysis:

In The Southern Writer and the Postmodern World, Fred Hobson tags Bobbie Ann Mason “not so much a New South as a No South writer” (81), limiting his discussion of Mason’s work to In Country’s Samantha Hughes. . . . What Hobson refers to in Mason’s characters as a “relative lack of southern self-consciousness” (6), though, is not evident in her other work. (Meekins 147)

As I wrote, I was witnessing for the first time how I could develop scholarship of my own by placing myself in conversation with other scholars, such as Fred Hobson.

Now as I revisit research writing with my students, I am reminded of why the study of imaginative literature, Southern or not, continues to appeal to me twenty-five years after I wrote that paper. As I read in our textbook that the purpose of humanities is “to explore and analyze aspects of the human experience” (Bullock et al. 307), I think of how the ways that writers continue to retell our stories is a source of never-ending fascination for me. I hope that in the process of reflecting on their own research, my students find their own sources of never-ending fascination, too—or at least begin to see their research as more than a course requirement. When they encounter unfamiliar words, I hope they’ll keep reading, as Tara Westover did. In her memoir, Educated, she writes of learning to study by mimicking her brother Tyler. In her words, “[t]he skill I was learning was a crucial one, the patience to read things I could not yet understand” (62). In retrospect, I realize that’s what I was doing forty years ago when I sat at my drop-front desk writing too many words on my note cards. Only now I understand.

Works Cited

Bullock, Richard et al. Chapter 24: “Reading Across Fields of Study.” The Norton Field Guide to Writing with Readings and Handbook. 5th ed. Norton, 2019. pp. 291-93.

Hobson, Fred. The Southern Writer in the Postmodern World. University of Georgia Press, 1991.

Meekins, Beth. “Lost in the Laughing Place: Notes on the Postmodern Postsouthern Condition.” The Black Warrior Review, vol. 20, no. 2, 1994. pp. 146-59.*

Westover, Tara. Educated. Random, 2018.

*The essay “Lost in the Laughing Place” was published five years before I married and three years before I began using my first name rather my nickname, hence the byline Beth Meekins rather than Jane Lucas.

Posted in Southern Literature, Teaching, Writing

Revelations of the Word: For Flannery, Lee, and Aine, with Gratitude

In Lee Smith’s tribute to Flannery O’Connor, she wrote of the transformation she experienced as a college student when she read O’Connor’s fiction for the first time. I thought of those words of Smith’s—and of the words of O’Connor’s that inspired them—when I received a gift from a woman who was a student of mine more than a decade ago. Last Saturday I was working at my desk when the mail carrier dropped the package on the porch. What I found inside was a picture of O’Connor in a gold-colored peacock frame, the bird wreathing O’Connor as her own pet peacocks had circled the writer on her farm, Andalusia, where she lived the last years of her short life.

Along with the framed picture, the student enclosed a note with these words: “I think of you often. Thanks for changing my entire academic life by introducing me to the amazing Southern women writers!”

Those writers included Smith, whose whole notion of the short story was upended when she read O’Connor for the first time. In Smith’s words:

[S]omehow I had got the idea that a short story should follow a kind of recipe, like a Lady Baltimore cake. Conflict, suspense, resolution; a clear theme; an ending that tied it all up in a neat little bow. Yet when I read that famous last line of  “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” I realized that nothing was wrapped up here—instead, a whole world opened out before my astonished eyes, a world as wild and scary as life, itself. (19)

A world opened before my eyes, too, when I first read O’Connor and Smith. And for me as a teacher, there is no greater honor than the opportunity to witness whole worlds open before my students’ eyes as they read those writers for the first time.

And Aine, what can I write of your expression of thanks? That it’s as exhilarating and astonishing as the words of those writers. Thank you!

Smith, Lee. “Revelation.” Flannery O’Connor: In Celebration of Genius, edited by Sarah Gordon, Hill Street, 2000. 19-20.

Posted in Southern Literature, Writing

Zadie and Zora: A Postscript

While I was writing my previous post about Zadie Smith, a t-shirt that I’d ordered arrived in my mailbox. Though I don’t often wear graphic tees, this one wooed me just as the Southern women writers whose names it bears captivated me when I first encountered their writing. Zora & Eudora & Harper & Flannery.

In her essay on Zora Neale Hurston’s novel Their Eyes were Watching God, Zadie Smith writes:

This is a beautiful novel about soulfulness. That it should be so is a tribute to Hurston’s skill. She makes “culture”–that slow and particular and artificial accretion of habit and circumstance–seem as natural and organic and beautiful as the sunrise. She allows me to indulge in what Philip Roth once called “the romance of oneself,” a literary value I dislike and yet, confronted with this beguiling book, cannot resist. She makes “black woman-ness” appear a real, tangible quality, an essence I can almost believe I share, however improbably, with millions of complex individuals across centuries and continents and languages and religions. . .

Almost–but not quite. That is to say, when I’m reading this book, I believe it, with my whole soul. It allows me to say things I wouldn’t normally. Things like “She is my sister and I love her.”

Posted in Reading, Southern Literature, Writing

Go Set a Watchful Editor

Watchman and Mockingbird with a draft of this blog post
“Watchman” and “Mockingbird” with a draft of this blog post.

In To Kill a Mockingbird, when Nathan Radley discovers that his brother, Arthur “Boo” Radley, has been leaving gifts for Jem and Scout in the knot-hole of a live oak tree, he fills the hole with cement. Some readers would like to entomb Go Set a Watchman in a similar fashion, troubled as they are by the timing of the novel’s publication—suspicious of the motives of Harper Lee’s estate trustee, Tonja Carter—and angered by the revelation of Atticus Finch’s bigotry.

When readers of Watchman learn along with Scout that Atticus not only opposes desegregation but was also once a member of the Klan, it’s more than we and the twenty-six-year-old Jean Louise can take. She says to her father, “You’ve cheated me in a way that’s inexpressible” (252), and we agree, wondering if Lee was cheated as well. Whatever the motives for its publication, the novel is here for us now, its appearance stopping us the way the knot-hole stops Scout and Jem. Rather than deeming Watchman’s arrival unwelcome, it serves us to examine the book with care, in particular the scene at the courthouse where Jean Louise secretly watches her father at a meeting of the Maycomb County Citizen’s Council. As Scout looks down at Atticus from the balcony, she remembers a very different scene twenty years earlier, one of her father “accomplish[ing] what was never before or afterwards done in Maycomb County: he won an acquittal for a colored boy on a rape charge” (109).

Reading that brief flashback, Harper Lee’s editor at Lippincott, Tay Hohoff, realized what was only a five-paragraph summary could become the moral and structural center of the novel. Though he isn’t acquitted in Mockingbird, the unnamed defendant gains a name, Tom Robinson, an arm—in Watchman it was “chopped off in a sawmill accident” (109)—and, most importantly, his essential human dignity. After more than two years of revision, Harper Lee gave us the re-imagined Tom, and Maudie Atkinson, and Mrs. Henry Lafayette Dubose, and added to them Boo, who along with the rest of the Radley family is absent from Watchman. We know those characters and empathize with them because Lee, with the coaxing of a watchful editor, returned to them again and again, giving us people we can consider from their own points of view, whose skin we “walk around in” (32), as Atticus teaches young Scout to do.

Near the end of Mockingbird, Scout reflects on Boo’s gifts to her and Jem: “two soap dolls, a broken watch and chain, a pair of good luck pennies, and our lives. But neighbors give in return. We never put back into the tree what we took out of it: we had given him nothing, and it made me sad” (253).

The least we can give Go Set a Watchman is our attention. It isn’t Harper Lee’s greatest gift to us, but it’s something more important in a way: it’s the apprentice work that gave life to the classic we love.

Works Cited

Lee, Harper. Go Set a Watchman. New York: HarperCollins, 2015. Print.

—. To Kill a Mockingbird. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1960. Print.

Posted in Reading, Southern Literature, Teaching, Writing

An Eskimo for Emily, or Another Story Altogether

Or Faulkner Photo-Bombed?

Side Effects (1980) and Is There a Text in This Class? (1980), with a draft of this blog post

Blame it on Stanley Fish. The idea for rewriting “A Rose for Emily” with an Eskimo came to me while reading his essay “What Makes an Interpretation Acceptable?” In it, Fish takes issue with Norman Holland’s argument about an Eskimo reading of “A Rose for Emily”: “We are right to rule out at least some readings” (qtd. in Fish 346). Fish agrees with Holland’s notion that such a seemingly random reading would not be accepted by the literary community, but he disagrees with Holland’s claim that the story cannot accommodate that reading. For Fish, reading the tableau of Emily and her father as an Eskimo could be a legitimate reading of William Faulkner’s story if an interpretive strategy were in place to provide for it.

As I read Fish’s essay, I took little interest in his theory and Holland’s, but I kept picturing an Eskimo inexplicably entering the story and turning it upside down. Because I couldn’t shake that image from my mind, I wrote it down, making “A Rose for Emily,” “another story altogether,” as I subtitled it. Though my adaptation, like Faulkner’s original, consists of five numbered sections, and employs the same first-person plural point of view of the townspeople, Emily finds herself no longer in conflict with her father, with herself, and with societal constraints, but instead with an Eskimo who follows her relentlessly.

In retrospect, I realize that “The Kugelmass Episode” influenced my story as well. Perhaps the first metafiction I ever read, Woody Allen’s story introduced me to the idea of trespassing on a classic work of literature and altering its plot. Though I didn’t draft the story with Allen’s in mind—not consciously, anyway—the Eskimo’s disruption of “A Rose for Emily” echoes the unsettling intrusion of Kugelmass’ in Madame Bovary.

Work Cited

Fish, Stanley. “What Makes an Interpretation Acceptable?” Is there a Text in this Class? The Authority of Interpretive Communities. Cambridge: Harvard UP. 338-55. Print.

 From An Eskimo for Emily, or Another Story Altogether


When the Eskimo appeared at the Grierson’s house, we all stood by and watched, waiting for Mr. Grierson to chase her away. We knew that he would banish anyone he deemed an intruder, but the Eskimo was another story altogether, which of course is how the trouble began.

At first we suspected that Emily, herself, in the ultimate act of defiance, had willed the appearance of the Eskimo in the tableau. After all, what else could explain the hooded shape that stood in the doorway between Emily and her father?

Thinking that the trespasser was yet another suitor, Mr. Grierson whacked the Eskimo on the head with his horsewhip and stumbled off to fetch some bourbon from the sideboard.

“Who are you?” Emily demanded of the wounded intruder.

Still smarting from the blow, the Eskimo eyed Emily critically and said, “as if you didn’t know.”

Emily didn’t betray her ignorance, as we suspected she wouldn’t. She just tilted her head back and glared at the Eskimo for a while, until she decided to play along, pretending she knew the Eskimo’s kinfolk.


Posted in Reading, Southern Literature, Teaching, Writing

Appalachian MacBeth

Serena (2008)

As I finished reading Serena last week, my thoughts turned to teaching it. A Southern Gothic novel with the feel, and some of the form, of Elizabethan drama, it’s well-suited for courses in world literature as well as Southern and Appalachian fiction.  It’s a regional novel that’s universal, as all the best “regional” writing is.

In an interview in the journal Grist, Serena’s author, Ron Rash, said: “To me, one of the most interesting aspects of literature is how the most intensely ‘regional’ literature is often the most universal. There’s no better example of this than James Joyce’s Ulysses. The best regional writers are like farmers drilling for water; if they bore deep enough and true enough into that particular place, beyond the surface of local color, they tap into universal correspondences, what Jung called the collective unconscious. Faulkner’s Mississippi, Munro’s Ontario, and Marquez’s Columbia are exotic, and they are also familiar” (5-6).

Rash “consciously evoked MacBeth,” he said in his Grist interview but “see[s] the book more in the tradition of Marlowe’s plays, which are always about the will to power” (8).

September brings the release of the film adaptation, starring Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper. Will it evoke Tamburlaine or a mash-up of  MacBeth and Silver Linings Playbook?

The interview with Rash published in the premier issue of Grist is reprinted in Ecco’s paperback edition of the novel.

Graves, Jesse and Randall Wilhelm. “An Interview with Ron Rash.” Serena by Ron Rash. 2008. New York: Ecco, 2009.

Posted in Film, Reading, Southern Literature, Writing

VCU’s Southern Film Festival: Screening Southern Rebellion

Frankly, My Dear (2009)

Molly Haskell grew up here in Richmond, and it’s here that she fell in love with movies. One of her most vivid childhood memories finds her standing before a magazine rack in the Broad Street station waiting for the train to Florida, and persuading her father to buy her a magazine devoted to the child star Margaret O’Brien.* The pleasure Molly Haskell took in reading that movie magazine is one she would later pass on to the readers of her own film reviews and books.” Those are some of the words that I spoke about Haskell Friday night when I introduced her as keynote speaker at the third annual VCU Southern Film Festival at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.

In her keynote address, Haskell discussed her most recent book, Frankly My Dear: Gone With the Wind Revisited (2009), which expolores Gone With the Wind as the product of three strong personalities: author Margaret Mitchell, film producer David O. Selznick, and actress Vivien Leigh. Published on the seventieth anniversary of the film’s release, Haskell’s book looks back more than eighty years to Mitchell’s drafting of the novel in the 1920s, while also considering the book and film in multiple cultural contexts and reflecting on its enduring presence in our collective memory and imagination.

Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind (2011)

Haskell‘s speech led into the screening of the recent documentaryMargaret Mitchell: American Rebel (2011), which features Haskell as well as John Wiley, Jr., who co-authored–along with Ellen F. BrownMargaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind: A Bestseller’s Odyssey from Atlanta to Hollywood (2011). Both Wiley, of Midlothian, and Brown, of Richmond, were in the audience Friday night as well, and after the film they joined Haskell on stage for a panel discussion moderated by me.

At the outset of the panel, I noted that the publication of Brown and Wiley‘s book marked an important contribution to Mitchell scholarship as well as studies of book publishing and copyright. Though I was prepared to offer more talking points  about their work and Haskell‘s, I didn’t need to. Their own observations about Mitchell, her novel, and the film prompted a nearly hour-long conversation with the audience, cut short only by the announcement that the museum would close at 9 p.m.

When one man sitting near the front of the auditorium expressed his ambivalence about calling himself a fan, I was reminded of the “Seven Stages of Gone With the Wind” that Haskell outlines in Frankly My Dear:

“For those of us who fell under its spell, the range of emotions attached to the film fluctuate over time with the predictable volatility of a love affair and its aftermath, in my own case what we might clinically designate as the Seven Stages of Gone With the Wind: Love, Identification, Dependency, Resentment, Embarrassment, Indifference, and then something like Half-Love again, a more grown-up affection informed by a film-lover’s appreciation of the small miracle by which a mere ‘woman’s film’ with a heroine who never quite outgrows adolescence was tansfigured into something much larger, something profoundly American, a canvas that contains, if not Walt Whitman’s multitudes, at least multiple perspectives” (xiii).

Along with those words of Haskell‘s about the Seven Stages of Gone With the Wind, I would’ve liked to address how fans of the novel and the film have formed online communities, particularly on Facebook. That’s something that Ellen Brown mentioned back stage when the four of us–Brown, Wiley, Haskell, and I–were clipping on our wireless microphones.

In their introduction to Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind, Brown and Wiley write: “We do not claim to have rewritten Gone With the Wind, but we have refocused the lens” (3). Similarly, Haskell‘s Frankly My Dear refocuses the lens, and the insights of the three authors inspired Friday’s night’s audience to see the book and film anew.

*The childhood memory of Haskell‘s that I mentioned in my introduction is one that she recounts in From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies (1974, Second Edition 1987).

Posted in Reading, Southern Literature, Theatre, Writing

“One’s Whole Being Becomes Absorbed”

FTP’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, September 15 – October 8, 2011

The Firehouse Theatre’s September 19 staged reading of The Night of the Iguana and its current production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof–both part of Richmond’s Centennial Celebration of Tennessee Williams–sent me back to the pages of Williams’ plays, which I’ve been rereading in the Library of America edition: Plays 1937-1955.

Williams’ Plays 1937 -1955 (2000)

I keep thinking of these words of Big Mama’s: “Time goes by so fast. Nothin’ can outrun it. Death commences too early–almost before you’re half-acquainted with life–you meet the other. . . .” In a recent Fresh Air interview, actress Margo Martindale told Terry Gross how saying those lines as a student differed from saying them decades later:

“I played Big Mama in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof when I was 20 years old at the University of Michigan. And then I played Big Mama on Broadway in 2004. The speech at the end of that play — ‘Time goes by so quickly …’ — boy did that have different weight from when I was 20 years old to when I was 50-something-odd years old. It’s all about what you’ve experienced. You can’t teach that to a younger actor. You have to have lived that.” In the current Firehouse production,
Jacqueline Jones
speaks Big Mama’s lines from experience as well, delivering one of the cast’s strongest performances.

In his introduction to Camino Real, Williams writes of the all-consuming nature of play writing: “It is amazing and frightening how completely one’s whole being becomes absorbed in the making of a play. It is almost as if you were frantically constructing another world while the world that you live in dissolves beneath your feet, and that your survival depends on completing this construction at least one second before the old habitation collapses.”

Today when I was completing an application for a grant, I thought of how it would enable my whole being to become absorbed–at least briefly–in the writing process in a way that it can’t when I’m teaching. Grants buy us time, which “goes by so fast. Nothin’ can outrun it.”

Posted in Reading, Southern Literature, Teaching

Half-Southern Detroit, “The Help”

The Help (2009)

In today’s story reporting Philip Levine’s appointment as Poet Laureate, NPR excerpted a 2005 interview in which Levine said that the Detroit of his youth “was probably half-Southern. And every Sunday morning you could turn on these guys [preachers on the radio]—both white and black—and they would belt out language like I never heard. I loved it.”

Along with the announcement of our new Poet Laureate from half-Southern Detroit, today brought the release of the film adaption of Kathryn Stockett’s best-seller The Help. Between thoughts of a half-Southern Detroit, I tried to imagine what I will say to students in my Southern Literature class when they ask why Stockett’s novel, or an excerpt from it, isn’t on the syllabus. I agree with Janet Maslin’s assertion that “[i]t’s a story that purports to value the maids’ lives while subordinating them to Skeeter and her writing ambitions.”

But the cultural impact of the novel, and now the film as well, tells me that  The Help needs to be part of our classroom conversation, even though it won’t be on the syllabus. In David Edelstein’s  review of the film on Fresh Air  today, he observed that “[s]ome of Stockett’s critics have gone so far as to say she actually romanticizes domestic servitude by depicting black nannies’ genuine love for the white children in their care. They also say the novel is full of stock characters that reinforce classic African-American stereotypes like the ‘sassy’ maid and the shiftless, abusive husband.”

And what is Edelstein’s take on it all? He said: “My view of this controversy is easily stated:  ‘I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know.’”

I don’t know either, but I do know that The Help will be part of our classroom conversation—perhaps along with half-Southern Detroit.

Posted in Reading, Southern Literature, Teaching, Writing

Belles Gone Bad, Summer Reading

VCU’s Founders Hall, site of “Belles Gone Bad,” April 26 – May 24, 827 W. Franklin St., Richmond, VA.

April 26 – May 24 found me revisiting some of my favorite writers—including Flannery O’Connor, Katherine Anne Porter, and Eudora Welty—with the women enrolled in Belles Gone Bad, a course that I developed for the Commonwealth Society, VCU’s institute for lifelong learning.

Elisabeth “Betsy” Muhlenfeld, president emerita of Sweet Briar College  (1996 – 2009) and Mary Boykin Chesnut scholar, joined the class for our final Tuesday-morning  meeting on May 24. Her remarks on Chesnut brought to life a woman whose incisive diary, Mary Chesnut’s Civil War, offers not only one of the most important historical accounts of the Civil War years but also a document of considerable literary merit.

Muhlenfeld’s biography of Chesnut sustained me while I was icing a sprained ankle back in March and renewed my interest in the diarist, so I added Muhlenfeld’s edition of Chesnut’s novel manuscripts (UVA Press, 2002) to my summer reading list. Chesnut’s unfinished apprentice novels, The Captain and the Colonel and Two Years—or The Way We Lived Then, don’t place you in her world the way her diary so beautifully does, but they reveal how she fictionalized her life as she taught herself to write, and in her developing voice you can hear a hint of what’s to come.

Other notable summer reads include the first chapter of colleague Mary Lou Hall’s Dogs and Heroes, which received the third annual Best Unpublished Novel prize, sponsored by James River Writers and Richmond Magazine. Mary Lou read the opening of the novel at the Focused Inquiry Faculty  symposium on Friday, November 12, and I enjoyed reacquainting myself with the first chapter–in the pages of the July issue of RM–which introduces a boy named Clarence and his new friend Mona, the albino Great Dane “all white with the baby blue eyes” (66). Congratulations, Mary Lou!

Still lingering in my mind is the closing image of the writer learning to dance in the personal essay “Lady Lessons” by Lee Smith in the June/July issue of Garden and Gun. Studying with Smith in 1989 filled me with the love that Bobbie’s dancing lesson gives the young Lee. And her writing continues to delight and instruct me.