Tag Archives: George Orwell

America’s greatest essay

Uncle Tom’s Cabin is a very bad novel, having, in its self-righteous, virtuous sentimentality, much in common with Little Women. Sentimentality, the ostentatious parading of excessive and spurious emotion, is the mark of dishonesty, the inability to feel; the wet eyes of the sentimentalist betray his aversion to experience, his fear of life, his arid heart; and it is always, therefore, the signal of secret and violent inhumanity, the mask of cruelty.”—James Baldwin, “Everybody’s Protest Novel,” from Notes of a Native Son

When he was seventeen, James Baldwin began writing his great, autobiographical novel about growing up in Harlem, Go Tell it on the Mountain—today it might be sold as a memoir—and would publish it after more than ten years of effort. A couple years later he wrote America’s greatest essay, for my money, which appeared in November 1955 in its first incarnation in Harper’s Magazine as “Me and My House . . .” and became the title essay of Notes of a Native Son. I quoted above from the book’s first essay because it pleases me how Baldwin struck at the sin of sentimentality with such vigor, precision, and beauty (as a boy he had reread Uncle Tom’s Cabin so obsessively his mother hid it from him; he knew its sins well).

“Notes of a Native Son” opens with the funeral, on August 3,1943, of Baldwin’s stepfather, a Harlem preacher, the father of eight younger children—the last born on the day of his rites—a colorful, contumacious, and bitter patriarch. Baldwin, a gifted Pentecostal preacher himself when only fourteen, had by seventeen turned away from the pulpit and toward literature, a shift that exacerbated tensions with his difficult stepfather. Baldwin’s portrait of him is unforgettable:

“He was, I think, very handsome. Handsome, proud, and ingrown, “like a toenail,” somebody said. But he looked to me, as I grew older, like pictures I had seen of African tribal chieftans: he really should have been naked, with warpaint on and barbaric mementoes, standing among spears. He could be chilling in the pulpit and indescribably cruel in his personal life and he was certainly the most bitter man I have ever met; yet it must be said that there was something else buried in him, which lent him his tremendous power and, even, a rather crushing charm. It had something to do with his blackness, I think—he was very black—and his beauty, and the fact that he knew he was black but did not know he was beautiful.”

To write like that: the rhythms, the conversational yet elevated rounded diction, the hint of oratory, the punctuation—and that surprise at the end! The essay is famous for the soaring grandeur of its elegiac close:

“It began to seem that one would have to hold in the mind forever two ideas which seemed to be in opposition. The first idea was acceptance, the acceptance, totally without rancor, of life as it is, of men as they are. . . . [T]he second idea was of equal power: that one must never, in one’s own life, accept these injustices as commonplace but must fight them with all one’s strength. This fight begins, however, in the heart and now it had been laid to my charge to keep my own heart free of hatred and despair. This intimation made my heart heavy and, now that my father was irrecoverable, I wished that he had been beside me so that I could have searched his face for the answers which only the future would give me now.”

One pictures Baldwin rejoicing, or at least smiling all day, after writing that paragraph and especially its last line, a gift. Maybe he cried.

The essay is beautifully structured, opening with the funeral and returning to it after scenic flashbacks and exposition. Many students love it, and it teaches well, with two caveats. The first is that Baldwin writes so gorgeously that he gets away with much exposition—his essays are classical in that sense, meditations relying on voice, and far more rhetorical than his fiction. Second, like any masterpiece it can’t be pigeonholed. Does one tell students it’s a memoir or a personal essay? (This hair-splitting will puzzle non-teachers, but students struggle with telling apart these categories, and there is a worthy if subtle distinction.) “Notes of a Native Son” is poised between its subject—perhaps America’s greatest subject, race—and personal history, the story of a man embittered by white prejudice and of his rebellious stepson who fears that he has inherited that bitterness. For teaching purposes I currently call it a personal essay because, though it is a great memoir, Baldwin’s intent is to show the human burden of racism. He uses his own and his stepfather’s life to explore that much larger subject, and makes white prejudice real and its effect painfully clear.

For Vivian Gornick, who discusses the essay at length in The Situation and the Story, it is a “perfect bridge between the essay and the memoir,” both exploring a subject and defining a conflicted self. She notes its “powerful commonality” with Orwell’s “Shooting an Elephant,” which also pivots around race, interweaves the personal and political, and features a “murderous truth-speaking” and civilizing voice. Ultimately Baldwin’s essay is about the burden of being civilized, Gornick says, and he forges a form that in its content and expression becomes a civilizing instrument. “. . . Baldwin found he could be everything he had to be—rational, humane, and cutthroat—all at the same time,” she writes. “The narrator’s tone of voice is, in fact, the true subject of the piece.”

In the preface to Notes of a Native Son, Baldwin writes, “I want to be an honest man and a good writer.” As far as I can see, he was both. Until his death in 1987, during self-imposed exile in France, he was also close friends with one of my favorite writers, William Styron. Baldwin’s eloquent prose is much like Styron’s, a burnished, erudite King James Bible colloquialism, but perhaps even more elegant.

Fiction writer Cynthia Newberry Martin has an interesting new post about Baldwin, Look Again,” with a link to Baldwin’s Paris Review interview, on her blog Catching Days.

Baldwin wrote in longhand, on yellow legal pads, and at night, beginning after dinner and continuing until three or four o’clock in the morning, he told The Paris Review. “When you’re writing,” he said, “you’re trying to find out something you don’t know. The whole language of writing for me is finding out what you don’t want to know, what you don’t want to find out. But something forces you to anyway. . . . ”

“I don’t know what technique is. All I know is you have to make the reader see it. I got this from Dostoyevsky, from Balzac. . . . Every form [fiction and nonfiction] is difficult, no one is easier than another. They all kick your ass.”

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Filed under discovery, essay-classical, essay-expository, essay-personal, NOTED, scene, sentimentality, teaching, education, working method

Dave Eggers on journalism’s virtues

Author Dave Eggers burst onto the literary scene with his memoir A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius; his latest book, Zeitoun, is about the Homeland Security/FEMA ordeal suffered by a Syrian-American immigrant and his family in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. Eggers recently gave an interview to Jeff Gordinier for Creative Nonfiction (Spring 2010) in which he talked about the immersion journalism he undertook to report Zeitoun. He talked about the influence of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and of Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song: he likewise used small sections, holding his writing to what he could prove, with line breaks between paragraphs full of implication, and the effect was a “certain spare, brutal rhythm.”

Eggers said that in addition to long periods of hanging out with his subjects he likes interview sessions of about three hours and records his interview subjects (he has the recordings transcribed). When he wasn’t interviewing the couple or other sources, he drove around New Orleans, taking photos and visiting places where events in the book take place. Eggers conducted more than two years of interviews for Zeitoun. Late in the process, as they were driving around New Orleans one day, his main character revealed that he’d been subjected to repeated humiliating strip searches when he was in custody as a suspected terrorist. “These revelations don’t arrive on schedule,” Eggers said, “and they don’t always arrive in the middle of a formal interview. You have to commit to a loose process that might take years.”

He writes at home, his office an eight-by-ten space in his backyard. Inside it, he’s got an Ikea couch and a coffee table and writes sitting on the couch, his feet on the table, typing on his laptop in his lap. He always listens to music, he said, a lot of Beethoven and Bach while writing Zeitoun, when his staple of Indie rock was throwing him off. He doesn’t have internet access at home and is usually on line only twice a day, once in the morning and once at night.

Eggers earned a degree in journalism from the University of Illinois, and he credits that training along with his experience in daily journalism with giving him the tools to report real-life stories. “That first book of mine was written in a blur, over a very short time, and was a relatively uncensored version of my voice,” he told Creative Nonfiction. “But I’d trained as a journalist long before that book, and Zeitoun is a reflection of that training—the ability to get out of the way of the story when necessary.”

On immersion journalism and interviewing:

“You have to question every word, every adjective, and be able to prove everything. Not only that, you have to check with the subjects, Kathy and Abdulrahman, to make sure you’ve gotten it right. So it’s limiting in terms of whatever creative freedom you might seek or value as a writer. . . .

“I had to quiz Kathy so often about what happened this day and that day—she was in the dark for three weeks, and I wanted to know what each and every day was like. I kept asking Kathy how it felt to live with that kind of pressure, and it took some time to really get at her emotions from that period. . . . It was a lot of work trying to reconstruct those days. I asked Kathy so many mundane questions: What did you do each morning? Did you make breakfast? When did the kids start going to school? Did you stay at home most days, and in what room did you spend most of your time? She thought I was nuts for caring about the day-to-day details.”

On literary influences:

“The more I studied the writers who influenced me a lot—Mailer and Orwell and Didion among them—the more I realized they had different versions of their own style, adapted to whatever story they were telling. Didion’s fictional voice is very different form her journalistic voice, and even her nonfiction changed significantly over the course of her career.”

“Orwell was so good at channeling his rage into these wonderfully effective and disciplined vehicles. I think discipline is key. That’s where the training in journalism helps, I think. A war reporter’s job is to report the horrors and folly of war; if he does his job well, he can illuminate the effects of bungled foreign policy far better than, say, some rant on the op-ed page can (not that all op-ed commentaries are rants). I guess that’s the difference between showing and telling. An op-ed tells; a story shows.”

On teaching journalism and on getting newspaper experience:

“I recommend journalism courses and/or writing for newspapers to every young writer I meet. I  think there’s a discipline—that word again—that’s very valuable. And a humility. You learn to examine every last word—to be able to prove it and its worth—and to make every word count, because in newspapers you usually work within strict word limits. You learn about meeting deadlines. . . .

“One of the most important things about newspaper work is how it forces you out of the house and puts you in touch with actual people. As a novelist, you might see someone on the street and assume a lot about that person. But you interview that person and most of your assumptions are upended. When I teach writing to high schoolers, I send them out on the street the first day. I tell them to find someone about whom they might assume certain things and then interview that person for 20 minutes about his or her life and opinions. It works every time. The first time I did the assignment, one of the students interviewed a guy with a Mohawk, leather head-to-toe, etc. he assumed the guy would be a liberal anarchist with all kinds of radical views but, in 10 minutes, found out he was actually a staunch conservative, who lived at home with his mom.”

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Filed under craft, technique, honesty, immersion, journalism, teaching, education, working method

Frank Conroy on mystery & memoir

Frank Conroy (1936 – 2005), author of the classic memoir Stop-Time (which has the strangeness of true art about it), as well as novels and essays, was director of the Writers Workshop at the University of Iowa. He sat down for an interview with Lacy Crawford of Narrative magazine before his death. Some excerpts:

“The power and almost obscene wealth of parts of America resemble nothing so much as the Roman Empire. I don’t understand why people aren’t completely scandalized by the degrading of humanity through films and television over the last twenty years, a degradation of the soul. I’m not religious, but I insist on being able to use some of the concepts generally scorned in a secular society. The soul and spirituality are important parts of life. A lot of artists are trying to reclaim some of the language and territory so scorned. Life is a mystery, but you wouldn’t know it from the mainstream of America, everybody watching a rerun on TV. The country is in danger, but I don’t think that serious literature is in danger. Not yet. The spiritual emptiness of society is very deep and unsettling, so people are looking for something better.”

“I don’t believe in the natural writer. I believe in the natural reader who gradually begins to write. You can’t write independent of literature, so you read, you read, you read, you read, you read, and then you begin to write. A lot of it is mysterious. I see writing from many super-bright people, IQs of 165, and I have to say, smarts doesn’t necessarily get you anywhere with writing. High intellect may affect what you write about, but finally what makes writing stand out is not about intellect. I’ve known three people whom I would call astrally intelligent—and all three of them tried to write, and they couldn’t.

“Good narrative puts the reader and writer in a position of equality. The text forms a bridge between two imaginations. A challenging narrative must nonetheless be welcoming to the reader. A good narrative has drive. But I don’t care for theory, and we don’t spend any time here on theory. Talking about writing is one thing, and writing is another. On the page you have to teach the reader how to read you. I once had a student who couldn’t write her way out of a paper bag. And then she wrote an amazing story, and The Atlantic published it, and I said, What happened? And she said, Back then, it was all in my head. I knew instantly what she meant, because it’s not supposed to be in your head; it’s supposed to open between you and the reader.”

“[Self pity in a memoir] puts the reader in a position of being asked to sympathize with the ill fortune of another person, to be the witness rather than the co-creator, which is what I want out of the reader, someone whose energy is pouring in. I’ll tell you what I think motivated the writing [of Stop-Time]. Rather than, Oh, what a tough time I’ve had, one of the engines that drove the book—beside the fact that I wanted to be a writer—was anger. I wrote the book to try to get even, in a way, to extricate myself, Hey, fuck you guys! I wasn’t aware of it then, but in retrospect I see it was definitely there.”

“To write Stop-Time, I had to go well past any imaginative boundaries I’d set for myself. And there was the feeling that every writer has described: you don’t feel like you’re doing it—it’s passing through you in some way. Also, I was able to write the book because I’d read so much. Before I got to college, I read everything. I read the Russians, the Brits, the French, the Americans. I was years into college before I was assigned a book I hadn’t already read. In the beginning I read in order to escape my circumstances. I absorbed so many of the conventions and the rules and the rhythms of good prose. When I read [George] Orwell, I couldn’t believe it, it was so beautiful.”

“I didn’t remember everything about the past when I started the book, and I had a lot of chronology mixed up, and a lot of stuff was just repressed. The act of concentrating on the writing and trying to write perfect sentences opens closed doors.”

“In the culture at the time, everything was drugs, and beatniks, the whole beginning of the revolution. And there I was with a sort of semiclassical book, and they didn’t know whether it was fiction or nonfiction. Just before the book was published, the editor called me up and said, Should we call this fiction or nonfiction? And off the top of my head, I said, Everything in the book actually happened, so I’d call it nonfiction. Which they did. It was nominated for the National Book Award under the Belles Lettres category, and it didn’t win. About five years later, I spoke to one of the judges, who told me that the fiction prize winner that year, Thornton Wilder, was the compromise candidate because the judges couldn’t agree on the other books. Then, this judge told me, Do you realize that if your book had been listed as fiction, you would have won? I think what caused a certain amount of confusion both at the retail level in the bookstores and among the critics was that, when the first chapters were published in The New Yorker in 1965, it was almost unheard of to use fictional techniques to write about real situations. My name stayed the same, but I changed every other name.”

“I still write in longhand. I couldn’t compose on the typewriter, so I would write in longhand, and then, as I typed it up, that was a draft, and then there would be another draft and another draft … I think I typed the book by hand at least seven times. And each time, I was editing, and correcting, and changing little stuff. But again, I just had faith in it. Nobody can hold a whole book in his head. It’s impossible. You can’t do it. So you—Marilynne [Robinson] and I talk about this a lot—you jump in the pool, and then you learn how to swim. You don’t really know a lot about what’s going to happen. You just can’t! If you do, then you’re a hack.”

“Writing is a funny business. At its higher levels, there’s so much involved that we don’t understand, and can’t explain. One reason so many writers are anxious, drink so much, and fuck up their lives is that they hate not being able to control the writing completely. They’ve always got a big bet on the table, and the roulette wheel is spinning and spinning, and they can’t control it, and they’re afraid. You realize how miraculous and mysterious the act of writing is. You’ve been reading and listening to the voices of many hundreds of writers, and they succeeded, so perhaps you can. But you have fears, everybody has fears. Look at Joyce at the end, on his deathbed, saying, Doesn’t anybody understand?”

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Filed under audience, creative nonfiction, discovery, memoir, narrative, NOTED, reading, religion & spirituality, teaching, education, working method

When prose becomes political

HookSizedBig

In our age there is no such thing as ‘keeping out of politics.’ All issues are political issues, and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred, and schizophrenia.—George Orwell, “Politics and the English Language”

“Vote,” Kathy commanded as she left the house last week on election day.

I wasn’t inclined to. We’d moved here only six months ago.We’d sold my flock of sheep, tended for a decade, and our farm in Appalachian Ohio. Now we lived on the edge of a metropolis. We enjoyed walking to work and to yoga. But everything was still unsettled. New routines were surely forming, but they were hard to see. I hadn’t gotten my annual flu shot—didn’t know where to go—and we kept forgetting to buy food for our little terrier Jack, who eats practically nothing but whose purple sack of Iams Active Maturity was getting low.

In our bedroom I found a flier on the election from a new city friend who was campaigning against the creation of a state livestock-care board. Vote No, it said. The newspaper we’d just started getting in an effort to understand our new world editorialized that the board amounted to factory farmers supervising factory farmers.

Kathy called the house to check up on me: “Don’t forget to vote.”

“Okay. We’re for the school levy,” I said. “Remember to vote against the livestock board, Issue 2. I don’t know the details but Jean is against it.”

I Googled and too much came up to figure out so late in the game. Issue 2 was something that a few months ago I’d have been certain about.

I opened an email from the editor of my old sheep breed society’s magazine and attached to it was the edited version of an article he’d solicited from me because he was running short of copy. Adapted from my memoir, it was an account of Muslim students butchering lambs on our farm on the day that journalist Daniel Pearl’s murder by Muslim terrorists was revealed. The copy editor had condensed the essay, cutting the braid about Pearl and my fear on that day of being surrounded by young Muslim men wielding knives. But in editing it to fit, she’d preserved the point: I admired the students’ taking responsibility for their meat and for their prayers at the moment they cut my lambs’ throats. This stood in contrast to America’s assembly-line slaughter and to the public’s willful ignorance about the origins of its food.

I approved the edits and walked uptown to the poll. I left many categories blank because I didn’t know the candidates or the issues, then went to a reception where people were talking about the election.

“How did you vote on Issue 2?” I asked.

“I voted against it,” one said. “We buy our milk from Snowville Creamery, and the owner said it would be controlled by the Farm Bureau and they could put him out of business if they wanted, because he doesn’t do things their way.”

I knew the couple who supplied Snowville Creamery with its milk—they were big figures in the grazing community I’d belonged to in southern Ohio. They’d sold me our terrier for our daughter’s birthday twelve years ago. I understood the paranoia about Ohio Farm Bureau, which I’d also felt was inherently hostile to my low-tech pastoral approach.

But I recalled from the finer print on my friend’s flier that the coalition I’d joined against the board included the Humane Society of the United States. HSUS isn’t what everyone calls the “humane society” but a national animal activist group akin to PETA-lite. When I raised sheep I figured both groups were my sworn enemies.

II.

Arriving home, I got a call from the editor of the sheep magazine saying he had to reject my story. “I ran it by [the head of the publications committee] and he said that at [the state university] they’re trained to use the word ‘harvest,’ never ‘kill’ or ‘slaughter’ or ‘butcher’ or ‘slaughterhouse,’ ” he said.

“That’s fine—you asked for it,” I said. “But this proves the need for the essay.”

What my piece clarified, the editor explained, is that they shouldn’t print personal essays but just reports. Of course politics roiled beneath every straightforward item; the sheep group was as riven with factions as a church, with the infighting just as nasty. But he noted the fear that my essay “could fall into the wrong hands”—activists—and be used against farmers.

For admitting that food animals are killed? For advocating that we should restore a spiritual dimension to taking life?

The agribusiness establishment, grown paranoid between extremists and an ignorant society, now employs verbiage as cleverly as its opponents. Well, it tries. I shouldn’t have been surprised by the “harvest” edict: a few years ago, the Farm Bureau, having fled from the beautiful concept agriculture for agribusiness, and stuck with its foes’ epithet “factory farms,” unveiled a new word for its sector to win hearts and minds: “agbioresource.” Rolls off the tongue, doesn’t it?

Politics is war, and truth is its first casualty. Another new friend had been disgusted when a hog farmer told Kiwanians here that without Issue 2 to protect farmers from extremists “we’ll all have to become vegans.” Meanwhile, she said, in its pre-election advertisements HSUS cleverly positioned the issue as one of “food safety,” preying on fears of e-coli and antibiotics, a screen for its animal rights agenda.

As euphemisms go, “harvest” isn’t very misleading—such a concentrated philosophical argument and so deeply and obviously political. But we do kill animals as well as harvest them. Our society can’t wash its hands of physical labor and blood and get off the hook for what results: industrial agribusiness. At least the Muslim students took direct responsibility. But Americans seemingly refuse to accept that we live by death. This leads to the sentimentality of the brute; to mistreatment of weaker people, not just animals.

An American counter-culture magazine actually printed my euphemism-free essay in all its bloody glory a few years ago: the Amish-run Farming: People, Land, Community. Their society is driven by communal values and by the desire to preserve community, rather than by the sanctity of any individual’s quest for profits. And its agrarian base has kept it in touch with basic realities. The editor didn’t think twice about printing it or the blunt quote from Ernest Hemingway atop it:

“All true stories end in death.”

III.

I emailed a shepherd friend and asked what she thought of Issue 2, and she sent me this description of the watchdog board from a national shepherds’ association: “The 13-member board will include three family farmers, two veterinarians (one of whom is the state veterinarian), a food safety expert, a representative of a local humane society, two members from statewide farm organizations, the dean of an Ohio agriculture college and two members representing Ohio consumers.”

It sounded pretty good to me, moderate—surely for the status quo, yes, but maybe I’d choose that in defiance of clueless consumers and in preference to extremists. I was beginning to regret my vote against the board.

However, this upset my friend in the report: “Members of Ohio’s agriculture community worried if [disallowing extreme confinement operations] were enacted in the state, it would cause the cost of food to rise for consumers, increase costs for farmers and reduce the availability of locally raised products.”

“Give me a break,” she wrote about such clumsy fear tactics. “I’d be happy to see battery cages, gestation and veal crates abolished, but realize that HSUS wants more than that.”

The irony is that her sheep don’t qualify for activists’ Animal Welfare Certified label because they live too close to nature: they graze outside in solar-fueled sustainable pastures year-round without the required constantly available man-made shelter. Infrastructure is the emblem of industrial agriculture’s mania for control that has led to animal factories, antibiotics to fight barn-cough (pneumonia) and the feeding of petrochemical-produced grain to ruminants.

Yet we’ve removed so many people from the land—more Americans are now incarcerated than are growing our food—that perhaps pressuring and regulating farmers is what we must do. Despite my kneejerk bitterness at society, I know people can sense right from wrong. We regulate employers, why not farmers? It would be better if we outlawed caged layers. Maybe we’re in a slow process of bringing values to another area of commerce. That will run counter to America’s cheap food policy that is another underlying villain here. Maybe we will pay a few cents more for eggs, milk, and meat but we’ll know why.

For now, even the man who knew too much hadn’t known how to vote, so how did I expect other urbanites to figure this one out? I was feeling better about having voted against the board, though. I had bet on evolutionary change by siding with the do-gooders, while hoping the public would control them. Was that logical, political, or just perverse?

The public’s decision came in the morning: Issue 2 had passed. Ohio voters had modified the state’s constitution to install the mainstream livestock board. The only location with a majority vote against it was my old county in the hills of southern Ohio, full of paranoid—or were they wise?—alternative farmers.

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Filed under audience, emotion, evolutionary psychology, honesty, MY LIFE, politics, religion & spirituality, sentimentality