Girl at the Mirror. The Saturday Evening Post. 6 Mar. 1954 / nrm.org

In Norman Rockwell’s painting Girl at the Mirror, the face that viewers see is the girl’s reflection—not her face itself, but the one she sees in the glass. What does she see in herself, and what do the paintings’ observers see, as we witness this private moment? Does her lace-trimmed petticoat evoke in her, or in us, thoughts of the wedding gown that she may wear one day? For Rockwell’s detractors—and for those who consider him a guilty pleasure—Girl at the Mirror and his other covers for The Saturday Evening Post present a sentimentalized depiction of American life, the same picket-fenced cliché that many who find fault with Our Town perceive as the prevailing image of the play. As theatre scholar Donald Margulies writes in his foreword to Our Town, many people who dislike it have “dismissed [it] as a corny relic of Americana and relegated Thornton Wilder to the kitsch bin along with Norman Rockwell and Frank Capra” (xi). Yet a close look at Our Town and Girl at the Mirror reveals portraits of American life that are far from idyllic.

As she gazes pensively in the mirror, the girl in Rockwell’s painting might be asking herself the same question that Emily Webb asks her mother: “[A]m I pretty?” (31). Though Mrs. Webb tries to reassure her daughter, Emily seeks an answer that her mother’s words fail to provide.

Both Emily and the Girl at the Mirror occupy that awkward space between childhood and adulthood—a notion that Rockwell emphasizes with the composition of his painting, placing the girl between her childhood toy, the doll that she has cast aside, and her new grown-up object of interest, movie star Jane Russell, who gazes up at her from the page of a magazine. Will I ever be beautiful and desirable, the way you are? the girl might be asking of Russell. Or, as Emily asks her mother: “Am I pretty enough . . . to get anybody . . . to get people interested in me? (32). Though Mrs. Webb answers Emily, she does not provide the answer that her daughter seeks. Telling Emily, instead, that she has “a nice pretty young face” (31) and that she’s “pretty enough for all purposes” (32), she avoids the subject of adult desire that underlies Emily’s questions.

Though the audience feels the frustration in Emily’s voice as she says, “Oh, Mama, you’re no help at all” (32), only later in the play do we feel the full weight of those words when Mrs. Webb confesses in the wedding scene that she has never talked to Emily about sex: “It’s cruel, I know, but I couldn’t bring myself to say anything” (76). Mrs. Webb’s monologue turns the scene of her daughter’s wedding into a reminder of the vulnerability and pain that come as a consequence of a lack of sexual knowledge. That same darkness at the edge of a seemingly quaint picture appears in Girl at the Mirror. Consider the doll, just beyond the mirror and the viewer’s focus, innocently cast aside perhaps, but backed up to the edge of the mirror’s frame. To the adult eye, the doll’s posture is clearly one of sexual submissiveness.

Both Wilder’s and Rockwell’s visions are more complex than what their critics give them credit for—or more accurately deny them—rendering the trouble that lurks below the surfaces of our daily encounters. And while the sexual innocence of Emily Webb and Rockwell’s Girl at the Mirror may seem distant to us, the silence that endangers their innocence pervades our lives. Now as revelations of celebrities’ and politicians’ transgressions saturate our news streams, the silences of Wilder’s characters seem eerily prescient. Can anyone now hear Mrs. Webb say, “I couldn’t bring myself to say anything” (76), without thinking of our own culture of silence—and of  Roy Moore and Louis C.K. and Kevin Spacey and Harvey Weinstein—and of all the predators in our own towns, places supposedly so far removed Grover’s Corners?

Meanwhile, back in Our Town, Mrs. Gibbs says of Simon Stimson’s alcoholism that “the only thing the rest of us can do is just not to notice it” (40). And Constable Warren says, “‘Twant much” (104), of a Polish immigrant nearly freezing to death, another way of saying that some lives do not matter as much as others, a prejudice that we know all too well as no mere relic of the past.  Those moments in Our Town not only belie the notion of Grover’s Corners as a saccharine portrait of America but also demonstrate that the play critiques the very parochialism that its detractors denounce as its stock-in-trade.

In his reassessment of Rockwell’s paintings, Richard Halpern observes that “[a] false belief in our own sophistication or knowingness is just another form of innocence” (par. 17). The same innocence may prevent us from seeing Our Town with real clarity, the way that Emily only truly sees her twelfth birthday when she revisits it after death. As she says to the Stage Manager, “I can’t look at everything hard enough” (105). Perhaps in our own innocence, neither can we.

Works Cited

Halpern, Richard. “Manufacturing Innocence,” excerpt from Norman Rockwell: The Underside of Innocence, U. of Chicago P., http://press.uchicago.edu/ucp/books/book/chicago/N/bo3750655.html, Accessed 16 Nov. 2017.

Margulies, Donald. Foreword. Our Town by Thornton Wilder. 1938. Harper Perennial, 2003, xi-xx.

Rockwell, Norman. Girl at the Mirror. The Saturday Evening Post, 6 Mar. 1954. Norman Rockwell Museum, 2016, http://www.nrm.org/MT/text/GirlMirror.html, Accessed 16 Nov. 2017.

Wilder, Thornton. Our Town. 1938. Harper Perennial, 2003.

Erik Larson / twitter.com

“Stumbling” and “serendipity” are two of the words that Erik Larson used as he recounted the moments that have unexpectedly led him to the subjects of his books. When he spoke at Lenoir- Rhyne on the morning of Friday, October 27, he told his interviewer, Jeffrey Delbert, Assistant Professor of Communications at LR, that he didn’t intend for his book on serial killer H.H. Holmes to be a dual narrative of Holmes and the 1893 World’s Fair. But his background reading on 1890s Chicago led him to a book–a boring monograph, as he called it–on the Colombian Exposition (the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair). Though the book bored him, one of its footnotes caught his eye: one that listed Juicy Fruit gum among the products first introduced at the fair. If not for that footnote, Larson said, he didn’t know if the book (The Devil in the White City) would have happened.

When an audience member asked about his penchant for crafting nonfiction narratives with the drama of novels, Larson remarked that he believed that such narratives can do more justice to real-life stories than a “bland historical approach.” Those words of his reminded me of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, which figures in the analysis of  The Devil in the White City that I wrote along with my students (as they wrote their own analyses) last spring–and that I offer again here:

The White City’s Blueprint: The Architecture of Larson’s Narrative Nonfiction

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.

When the thought of making small talk with the other guests at a fishing lodge overwhelms Charlie Baker, his friend Froggy LeSueur concocts a story to enable the shy, fretful Charlie to avoid conversation—and to do so without seeming rude. Froggy tells Betty Meeks, the owner of the lodge, that Charlie is a foreigner who doesn’t speak English. And to stave off questions about Charlie’s homeland, Froggy implies that he can’t disclose that information because Charlie is on a classified mission.

And so the farce of the not-so-foreign foreigner begins. While Charlie—a proofreader for a science fiction magazine—is in fact a true foreigner on American soil, no one in Tilghman County, Georgia would think of him as foreign if he spoke in his native tongue, as Froggy, his friend and fellow Englishman, does. The ruse of the language barrier becomes a boon not only to Charlie but also to Betty and her guests. As Charlie observes to Froggy:  “Because of me, you see? We—all of us, we’re becoming—we’re making one another complete, and alive, and—oh, I can’t explain” (2.1). As Froggy watches the guests grow more fascinated by his friend and his made-up, pseudo-Baltic language (gok, blit, etc.), Froggy remarks to Betty that he’s feeling “a bit dull,” to which Betty replies: “No, now Frog. You cain’t help it if you ain’t a foreigner.” But of course Froggy is a foreigner, as the audience knows, and Charlie is, too—but not in the sense that the other characters believe he is, and that dramatic irony becomes the play’s driving force.

Ultimately, The Foreigner is not about foreignness but rather about misunderstandings and misperceptions—in particular the ones that engender racism and xenophobia. Charlie and the friends he makes at Betty’s lodge prevail over the villains who have been in their midst throughout the play, one of whom has appeared to be their ally. That villain is fundamentally more frightening than the one whose hatefulness and penchant for violence has been clear from the start.

Seeing those villains on stage now, reminds theatregoers that Larry Shue’s comedy is not the period piece that it may appear to be. When one of the characters reads aloud a magazine story to show how out-of-date it is, she is reading the story of the naming of the infant Prince William, which was only a year in the past when Shue wrote The Foreigner. (William was born in 1982; Shue’s play premiered in 1983.) But though William now has two children of his own—and another on the way—the play’s villains are not old news. They are still here; we saw them descend on Charlottesville.

We will never know what Larry Shue might have written about our latter-day Owen Mussers and Reverend David Lees, the villains we recognize and the ones we don’t.

Only two years after he wrote The Foreigner, Shue died in a commuter plane crash. Since his death, The Foreigner has become a staple of community and professional theatres alike. Shue’s play has endured because of the appeal of its title character. But what’s vital for audiences watching it now and realizing its prescience is the potential power of its satire.

The Hickory Community Theatre’s production of The Foreigner returns for its third and final week tonight.

Work Cited

Shue, Larry. The Foreigner. Dramatists Play Service, 1983.

At the book launch for his debut collection of poetry, Impossible Angles, Jordan Makant told the audience that he didn’t like writing poetry when he enrolled in a poetry workshop at Lenoir-Rhyne but found himself drawn to the form after his workshop professor, Scott Owens, told him, “write the way you think.” Those words of Owens’ led Jordan, now an LR senior, to begin drafting stream-of-consciousness verse, including “Late Night with Myself and a Four Cylinder,” one of the poems that he read at the launch.

Later this morning when I talk with my students about Jordan’s work, I will tell them about his initial lack of interest in writing poetry, with the hope that some of the students will consider enrolling in a writing workshop, because they may discover unexpectedly—as Jordan did—that  writing poetry (or fiction, or creative nonfiction) can give them a way of making sense of the world. And as an exercise to encourage them, I will offer one of Jordan’s poems as a model: “Thought Twice; It’s Not Alright,” a response to Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right.”

Jordan’s poem begins with the line, “Bob Dylan was lying, of course . . .” (18). What song in your playlist stays on your brain? I will ask my students. What truth or lie does it tell? Begin there.


Makant, Jordan. “Thought Twice; It’s Not Alright.” Impossible Angles. Main Street Rag, 2017. 18.

An epigraph stands out as a curious element in a play. For readers of the script, that quotation,which precedes the opening of the play and presents its prevailing theme, offers a signpost to guide them on their journey. However, for those who first encounter the play on the stage, the choices of the director and the actors must convey that idea, which the audience, unlike readers of the script, does not see in written form.

For the epigraph of her comedy Creature (2009), playwright Heidi Schreck turns to the words of thirteenth-century poet and mystic Hadeviijch of Brabant: “He who has seen her comings and goings knows that Love is the highest name of Hell.” The notion of just how devilish divine love can be runs rampant, or like hell fire, through the recent production of Creature at Lenoir-Rhyne University. Among the funniest depictions of the hellishness of divine love are the ones in which the central character, Margery (Liz Bokhoven), based on the real-life, fifteenth-century Christian mystic Margery Kempe, struggles with her religious calling after she believes she experiences a vision of Jesus in purple robes.

In Margery’s eyes, Christ’s choice of purple is not liturgical, but personal. As she says to him, “[o]h, you are wearing purple, my favorite color” (16). Though the lollardly, married, brewery-owning Margery seems an unlikely—if not downright heretical—candidate for Sainthood, and though her story yields many unanswered questions, the audience willingly follows her on her pilgrimage, drawn into the play by Schreck’s humorous depictions of the yearnings and conflicts of Margery and everyone in her orbit.

To quell accusations of heresy and avoid public burning at the stake, Margery seeks validation of her vision from the anchoress Juliana of Norwich (Milissia Koncelik), whose book Revelations of Divine Love echoes the play’s epigraph. In Juliana’s words, “[t]rue Sin is the terrible distance between ourselves and God. There is no harder Hell than this” (73). Yet for all of the burden and pain of her wisdom, Juliana—played with wry humor by Koncelik—does not brood. She can say hello to a thought and then let it go—and chatter on about her late cat, Mathilda, and her love of babies, even as she grants Margery her certificate of approval, telling her, “[i]t’s a respectable vision” (70). Whether the audience believes in Margery’s vision, Juliana apparently does.

Along with casting doubts about the nature of Margery’s vision, Creature raises many questions that remain unanswered, including the one that Margery starts to answer repeatedly throughout the play, when she begins the confession that she never finishes. What sin she committed as a ten-year-old remains a mystery. Complicating the uncertainties of Margery’s story is a question of accuracy: Scholar Lynn Staley asserts that the Margery in the pages of Schreck’s source material, the autobiography The Life of Margery Kempe, is herself a fictional persona, one constructed by Kempe to offer commentary on fifteenth-century English life.[i] To readers and audience members who ponder these unknowns at length, Juliana might say—as she does to Margery—“[y]ou’re so serious” (71). Like religious devotion itself, following Margery on her spiritual journey requires a leap of faith—one that can feel like Hell, as Creature shows. But Schreck’s play also reminds us of the vital role of humor in our lives. Rather than offering Hadeviijch of Brabant’s words alone as the play’s epigraph, Schreck might have paired them with this reflection of Anne Lamott’s: “Laughter is carbonated holiness” (66).


[i] For a discussion of Lynn Stale’s argument, see Margery Kempe’s Dissenting Fictions. Penn State UP, 1994.

Works Cited

Creature. By Heidi Shrek. Dir. Liz Bokhoven. Perf. Liz Bokhoven, Chase Fowler, Benjamin Thomas-Reid, Callie Cope, Milissia Koncelik, Corey Smith. LR Playmakers, Lenoir-Rhyne U., Hickory, NC. 21 Sept. 2017.

Lamotte Ann. Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith. Riverhead, 2005.

Shrek, Heidi. Creature. Samuel French, 2011.

 

The “South Carolina” chapter of The Underground Railroad finds the protagonist, Cora, recruited to work as a living model at the Museum of Natural Wonders. In a series of three rooms that trace the American slave experience from Africa to the plantation, Cora poses in costume, silently critiquing the scenes she inhabits, pointing out their inaccuracies. For author Colson Whitehead, Cora’s stint at the museum offers a frame story within the novel’s sprawling alternate history, one that prompts readers to reflect on Whitehead’s juxtaposition of fact and fiction.

In the room “Life on a Slave Ship,” where Cora dons a sailor outfit, she observes that “[t]here had been no kidnapped boys swabbing the decks and earning pats on the head from white kidnappers. The enterprising African boy whose fine leather boots she wore would have been chained belowdecks, swabbing his body in his own filth” (116). And in the room “Typical Day on a Plantation,” she notes that “slave work was sometimes spinning thread, yes; most times it was not. No slave had ever keeled over dead at a spinning wheel or been butchered for a tangle” (116).

Readers witness Cora’s reflections knowing them to be the observations of a fictional character but realizing as well that that the tableaux vivant of the Museum of Natural Wonders are as fictional as the novel, itself. Cora is not a historical figure, but her plight parallels the harrowing experiences of real-life fugitive slaves, a truth that Whitehead underscores by prefacing his state-titled chapters with runaway slave advertisements  (from the digital collections at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro). The chapters named for characters are free of those ads, symbolically liberating them from the Fugitive Slave Laws that impede their journey on Whitehead’s literal Underground Railroad.

Some readers may question Whitehead’s choice to create an actual Underground Railroad, turning the metaphor into a series of subterranean tracks, noting the apparent irony of such deviations even as the novel’s central character meditates on historical inaccuracies. But Whitehead is a novelist, not a historian. His aim is not to produce a history but to breathe life into characters who speak truths from their fictional worlds—not our current terrain of alternative facts but a reimagined past where Cora astutely critiques what Whitehead called a  “sanitized history” in his recent appearance at Lenoir-Rhyne University.

Sanitized versions of the past deny truths laid bare by Whitehead’s novel and other alternate histories. Notably, last year marked not only the publication of The Underground Railroad but also Ben Winters’ Underground Airlines. The fictional worlds of both novels evoke the legacies of slavery that remain, though the truths of those legacies—police brutality and anti-immigration policy, among them—may be obscured by rhetoric and mythos. As Cora in her role as a living, breathing mannequin observes: “Truth was a changing display in a shop window, manipulated by hands when you weren’t looking, alluring and ever out of reach” (116).  At the novel’s close, readers unsettled by the difficult truths within the fiction, can at least find solace in the last image of Cora, still headed north and still out of reach.

Works Cited

Whitehead, Colson. “An Evening with Colson Whitehead.” 14 Sept. 2017, P.E. Monroe Auditorium, Lenoir Rhyne U., Hickory, NC.

—. The Underground Railroad. Doubleday, 2016.

Colson Whitehead / Madeline Whitehead

Colson Whitehead grew up listening to the Donna Summer version. Others of you know the Richard Harris version, he said, and some of you have no idea what I’m talking about. And then for anyone in the audience who belonged to the last group—who may have said, “Huh?” when he started talking about “MacArthur Park”—he held his tablet up to the mic so everyone in P.E. Monroe auditorium could hear the Disco Queen sing: “MacArthur’s Park is melting in the dark/ All the sweet, green icing flowing down/ Someone left the cake out in the rain/ I don’t think that I can take it’ ‘Cause it took so long to bake it/ And I’ll never have that recipe again.”

And then as Donna Summer, began to cry, “Oh no!,” Whitehead joined in, losing himself for a moment in song. He had the audience then, at “Oh no!,” if his self-effacing humor hadn’t already won them over. What’s not to love about a writer who says, “I usually spend my Thursday nights in my apartment weeping over my regrets, so this is a nice change of pace”?

Whitehead’s remarks began with a false start, as writing often does. But his false introduction was intentional: “I was born a poor black child. I remember the days, sittin’ on the porch with my family, singin’ and dancin’ down in Mississippi,” riffing on Steve Martin’s opening scene of The Jerk. After that, Whitehead turned to the real beginning.

I wasn’t one of those writers who spent time indoors because I was a sickly child, he said. (Marcel Proust comes to mind.) He was just a kid who liked to stay inside and watch The Twilight Zone and Outer Limits and read comic books. I wanted to be a writer because you didn’t have to go out, he said. As a teenager he wanted to write the black Salem’s Lot or the black The Stand. He wanted to write the black-anything Stephen King, he said, until later he read literary fiction and was drawn to the stylings of the modernists, noting in particular the magic realism of Gabriel García Márquez.

After college, while working as a TV writer for The Village Voice, Whitehead penned his first novel: the later-in-life adventures of a former child star, a Gary Colemanesque character. That novel was never published. He received rejection after rejection, which brought him back to “MacArthur Park.”

The song was an enigma, he said, until he realized that it was an investigation of the author’s journey. Why, he asked, did you leave my cake out in the rain, Alfred A. Knopf? Why did you leave my cake out in the rain, Houghton Mifflin? “I don’t think that I can take it/ ‘Cause it took so long to bake it/ And I’ll never have that recipe again.”

Rejection after rejection—or layer after layer of soggy cake—led Whitehead to rethink his decision to become a writer. He considered other professions, but he didn’t seemed well-suited to any of them—surgeon, for instance. Surgeries can last for more than twenty hours. What if you have to go to the bathroom? he asked.

And then there was the matter of the minuscule audience. A literary novel might sell 5,000 copies, and if there’s ten readers for each copy, that’s still only 50,000 readers in a world with a population of over seven billion. So if you’re a writer of literary fiction, “you aren’t the gnat in the butt of the elephant,” he said. “You’re a microbe in the gnat in the butt of the elephant.” Colson Whitehead kept writing anyway, realizing that he had no choice—that’s who he was—so he started over.

Seventeen years ago, he got the idea to create a fictional antebellum America where the Underground Railroad wasn’t a metaphor, but the literal railroad he imagined as a child. He didn’t think that he was up to the task then, but three years ago he decided to give it a try.  That try became The Underground Railroad, which has now received the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, the Carnegie Medal for Fiction, the heartland Prize, and the Arthur C. Clarke Award. Though he’s become one of the most celebrated novelists of his generation, as a writer Whitehead still finds himself filled with uncertainty.

Near the end of the Q&A session that followed his talk, a woman asked what is was like for him, that stay-inside, work-at-home guy, to be the public figure that he has now become. He answered that it’s very different from being a writer and having all these doubts . . . is this paragraph too long? It’s a very lovely thing.


Whitehead, Colson. “An Evening with Colson Whitehead.” LR Visiting Writers Series. 14 Sept. 2017, P.E. Monroe Auditorium, Lenoir Rhyne U., Hickory, NC.