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Book News Literary History

Gatsby’s Green Light Beckons a New Set of Strivers – New York Times

Gatsby’s Green Light Beckons a New Set of Strivers – New York Times

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel The Great Gatsby continues to inspire urban youth, many of whom are immigrants, with its portrayal of the American dream. The book is still required reading in half the high schools in the U.S. It sells about half a million copies a year, mostly to high school and college students.

What accounts for the novel’s continuing popularity?

teachers at Boston Latin and other urban schools, say their students see in “Gatsby” glimmers of their own evolving identities and dreams. The students talk about the youthful characters — Gatsby; Daisy Buchanan, the married woman he loves; Tom, Daisy’s husband and a onetime Yale football star; and the narrator, Nick Carraway — as if they were classmates or celebrities.

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Author News Book News Literary History

The Writer’s Almanac from American Public Media

The Writer’s Almanac from American Public Media

The Writer’s Almanac, sponsored by American Public Media and The Poetry Foundation, provides a poem each day, plus literary and historical notes for the day’s date. In addition to reading online, you can also sign up for a daily e-mail or listen to the podcast version.

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Author News Book News Literary History

What Exactly is Literature?

NPR : Best-Selling Book Shows ‘Halo’ Game’s Wide Appeal

That’s the question raised by news items such as this:

The action-adventure book Contact Harvest is on the USA Today and New York Times best-seller lists. Author Joseph Staten had never written a novel but was uniquely qualified to write this one.

Contact Harvest is the most recent book in a series of adaptations of the video game Halo, for which Staten has been writing for years.

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Fiction Literary History

Dorothy Sayers and British Detective Fiction

NPR : A Brutal, British Mystery Novel for Boxing Day

Jonathan Hayes, a New York City forensic pathologist, describes how a BBC broadcast of Dorothy Sayers’s novel The Nine Tailors made him appreciate Sayers’s influence on the mystery genre:

In Nine Tailors, the violence is not bloodless, but brutal, and the characters are made of flesh and blood — even Whimsey, the hero, is struggling with the emotional aftermath of the Great War. Sayers helped nudge the English mystery novel out of the drawing room and into the real world, particularly in her later novels. Of course, in the 1930s, the real world in crime fiction was increasingly a modern American world, with hard-boiled writers like Chandler and Hammet rising to prominence, but I think Sayers does deserve real credit for toughening up and broadening the reach of the British detective story.

Hayes says that Sayers transformed the traditional “cozy” mystery, sometimes referred to as an English drawing-room mystery, in which the murder happens quickly and off stage; the rest of the mystery covers the detective’s investigation and thought processes in determining who the murderer is. As Hayes puts it, in a British cozy “The crime is reduced to a trite riddle, self-contained and without broader implication.” His experience as a forensic pathologist has taught him that murder is anything but cozy; it is brutal, not bloodless. This is a reality that Sayers was willing to face, and her work has had a lasting influence on the mystery genre.

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Literary History

Literature of Christmas Eve

From The Writer’s Almanac, a publication of Prairie Home Productions, presented by American Public Media:

 

Literary and Historical Notes:

It’s Christmas Eve, the setting for many works of fiction including O. Henry’s (books by this author) “Gift of the Magi,” a short story about Jim and Della, the impoverished young couple, in which each one is trying to find the perfect gift for the other. They have just two prized possessions. Jim has a very valuable gold watch and Della has luxurious brown hair and she decides to sell it so she can get Jim a platinum watch chain and Jim sells his watch so that he can get her the beautiful tortoise shell combs for her hair.

Christmas Eve is also the setting for the beginning of Charles Dickens’ (books by this author) A Christmas Carol, published in 1843, a story credited with reviving Christmas in England, which begins:

“Marley was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner. Scrooge signed it: and Scrooge’s name was good upon ‘Change, for anything he chose to put his hand to. Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail.”

Scrooge is the famous bitter old miser who holds Christmas in contempt but on Christmas Eve he gives Bob Cratchit Christmas day off. He dines alone in his usual tavern, and returns to his lodgings, where on the door knocker her encounters an image of the face of Marley, his old business partner. Marley warns him that he will be visited by three spirits and if he does as they tell him, then he can escape Marley’s fate, which is to walk the earth bound in chains because he had no concern for mankind during his life. The ghosts come and Scrooge awakens “‘I don’t know what to do’ he cried, ‘laughing in the same breath…I am as light as a feather, I am as happy as an angel, I am as merry as a schoolboy. I am as giddy as a drunken man. A merry Christmas to everybody!'” The boy stops under the window and he sends him down to the poulterer’s shop to buy the enormous turkey to send to Bob Cratchit’s family. Scrooge dressed himself all in his best and got out into the streets. The people were pouring forth and walking with his hands behind him Scrooge regarded everyone with a delighted smile. He looked so pleasant that three or four good humored fellows said, “Good morning, sir. A merry Christmas to you.’ And Scrooge said afterwards that they were the most delightful sounds he had ever heard in all his years. He went to church and walked up and down and found that everything could yield him pleasure.

 

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Literary Criticism Literary History Literature & Psychology Nonfiction Review

“Writing a Woman’s Life” by Carolyn G. Heilbrun

Heilbrun, Carolyn G. Writing a Woman’s Life (1988) 
W.W. Norton & Company, 144 pages, $14.95 hardcover 
ISBN 0-393-02601-9

In the “Introduction,” feminist scholar Carolyn Heilbrun explains the topic of her book:

There are four ways to write a woman’s life: the woman herself may tell it, in what she chooses to call an autobiography; she may tell it in what she chooses to call fiction; a biographer, woman or man, may write the woman’s life in what is called a biography; or the woman may write her own life in advance of living it, unconsciously, and without recognizing or naming the process. (p. 12)

Heilbrun says that she will focus on three of these methods, omitting fiction.

Men have always had narrative stories, such as the quest motif and the warrior exemplar, on which to base their lives and within which to tell their life stories. But, Heilbrun argues, such stories of action and accomplishment have been denied to women; the behavior praised by these stories has always been branded “unwomanly”:

above all other prohibitions, what has been forbidden to women is anger, together with the open admission of the desire for power and control over one’s life (which inevitably means accepting some degree of power and control over other lives). (p. 13)

Because this has been declared unwomanly, and because many women would prefer (or think they would prefer) a world without evident power or control, women have been deprived of the narratives, or the texts, plots, or examples, by which they might assume power over—take control of—their own lives. (p. 17)

Well into the twentieth century, it continued to be impossible for women to admit into their autobiographical narratives the claim of achievement, the admission of ambition, the recognition that accomplishment was neither luck nor the result of the efforts or generosity of others. (p. 24)

The concept of biography itself has changed profoundly in the last two decades, biographies of women especially so. But while biographers of men have been challenged on the “objectivity” of their interpretation, biographers of women have had not only to choose one interpretation over another but, far more difficult, actually to reinvent the lives their subjects led, discovering from what evidence they could find the processes and decisions, the choices and unique pain, that lay beyond the life stories of these women. The choices and pain of the women who did not make a man the center of their lives seemed unique, because there were no models of the lives they wanted to live, no exemplars, no stories. These choices, this pain, those stories, and how they may be more systematically faced…are what I want to examine in this book. (p. 31)

In subsequent chapters Heilbrun offers George Sand, Willa Cather, and particularly Dorothy L. Sayers as examples of women who tried to mold their lives into patterns other than those traditionally allowed to them. However:

Only in the last third of the twentieth century have women broken through to a realization of the narratives that have been controlling their lives. Women poets of one generation—those born between 1923 and 1932—can now be seen to have transformed the autobiographies of women’s lives, to have expressed, and suffered for expressing, what women had not earlier been allowed to say. (p. 60)

These poets, all American, are Denise Levertov, Jane Cooper, Carolyn Kizer, Maxine Kumin, Anne Sexton, Adrienne Rich, and Sylvia Plath.

Finally, Heilbrun argues for what she calls “reinventing marriage,” for a new kind of marriage in which husband and wife both recognize and nurture the other’s strengths. “Marriage is the most persistent of myths imprisoning women, and misleading those who write of women’s lives” (p. 77), she says. As an example of this new kind of marriage she cites the relationship between Leonard and Virginia Woolf.

One of the more interesting aspects of Writing a Woman’s Life is Heilbrun’s explanation, in chapter six, of why she chose to use a pseudonym in the 1960s when, as a young college professor, she started publishing detective novels: “I believe now that I must have wanted, with extraordinary fervor, to create a space for myself” (p. 113). “But I also sought another identity, another role. I sought to create an individual whose destiny offered more possibility than I could comfortably imagine for myself” (p. 114).

A potential problem with any  type of literary criticism based on a particular ideology is that it often ends up reducing complex issues to dismissively simple statements, such as this declaration by Heilbrun: “Marriage, in short, is a bargain, like buying a house or entering a profession” (p. 92). Nonetheless, in general, Writing a Woman’s Life offers a compelling view of cultural and social conventions that are currently undergoing change.

© 1999 by Mary Daniels Brown