Sara Blair on How the Other Half Looks

BlairNew York City’s Lower East Side, long viewed as the space of what Jacob Riis notoriously called the “other half,” was also a crucible for experimentation in photography, film, literature, and visual technologies. Sara Blair takes an unprecedented look at the practices of observation that emerged from this critical site of encounter, showing how they have informed literary and everyday narratives of America, its citizens, and its possible futures. How the Other Half Looks reveals how the Lower East Side has inspired new ways of looking—and looking back—that have shaped literary and popular expression as well as American modernity.

How have representations of the Lower East Side changed since the mid-nineteenth century?

In surprising and powerful ways, they haven’t. A set of complex associations—with vice, poverty, raw energy, the threat of the alien and the unassimilated—have continued to swirl around New York’s historical ghetto through its many lives and afterlives, well into our own moment. Over time, these associations have drawn image-makers and writers there to experiment with new visual technologies, new perspectives, and new media. In a real way, the Lower East Side and its received image have helped shape modern practices of seeing and imaging—not just the other way around.

What do recent representations of the Lower East Side tell us about our cultural moment?

They remind us how much cultural work we do to continue imagining the project of America, what it means to be or become an American and to have a collective future. In the 2016 Harry Potter franchise film Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, for example, the unfolding of Magic as a contest between nativism and progressive aspirations (one that’s all too familiar to us IRL) depends on the Lower East Side as a space defined both by its threat to a “pure” citizenry and its promise of a more robust and dynamic nation. In a very different mode, the award-winning 2014 documentary Chasing Ice draws on images of the Lower East Side both to make real the unprecedented effects of climate change—and to hold out hope for its reversal. However unexpectedly, images of the Lower East Side continue to be a resource for apprehending the way we live now, bringing America’s histories and possible futures into view.

How did you approach the research for this book?  What surprised you?

I began this project by trying to answer a broader question: how did the Lower East Side become both a key subject of representation and a powerful force in shaping practices of representation? The problem of seeing that space—of making sense of its staggering density, heterogeneity, and energies—challenged image-makers, writers, journalists, guardians of public order, and everyday citizens alike to test new visual technologies, whose cultural uses came to reflect on-the-ground encounters with the world of the tenements and the streets. As I worked my way through a host of archives—of everyday photographs, print media, literary projects and more—what surprised me most was the range of practices that turn out to have been shaped by encounter with the Lower East Side, from the emergence of photography as an art form and the rise of the U.S. film industry to efforts to revive print culture in digital contexts. On all these and more, the Lower East Side has left its own indelible mark.

Are there instances of images that represent the Lower East Side shaping the site itself?

By all means. Early photographs of New York’s ghetto and tenements, made by Jacob Riis in the 1880s, not only codified uses of the camera as an agency of social seeing. They drove projects of slum clearance and social reform that shaped the built environment of New York’s downtown as well as hugely influential ideas about the city, its modernity, and its citizens. By the mid-1930s, in the grip of the Depression, photographers who had themselves been children of the ghetto were experimenting with new ways to represent its complex histories, using them as a vantage point to look critically at the American success narrative. Their work helped photography reinvent itself as a postwar art form—alongside the attention of urban planners who would undertake to redesign the tenement landscape in service of twentieth-century urbanism as a master plan. From lurid accounts of Bowery poverty and as-if “documentary” images of nuclear strike on the U.S., the iconography of the Lower East Side has remained vitally available, and it has continued to enter into the material life and lived experience of that generative place.

What do you hope readers will take away from reading this book?

I hope they’ll think differently about the Lower East Side, as a place of entry not just for historical newcomers to the United States but for understanding how we’ve come to view and imagine this rich, ongoing, incomplete experiment we call America. As my mother said (to my delight) when she browsed the book, this isn’t just about Jews. It’s about the way history lives and continues to shape our lives in images, and how we might learn to look back more acutely at that history, at a time when we urgently need to learn from it.

Sara Blair is the Patricia S. Yaeger Collegiate Professor of English and a faculty associate in the Department of American Culture and the Frankel Center for Judaic Studies at the University of Michigan. Her books include Harlem Crossroads: Black Writers and the Photograph in the Twentieth Century and Trauma and Documentary Photography of the FSA.

Exploring the Black Experience through the Arts

Black Americans’ work in the arts has long been both prominent and under-recognized. Black artists’ expressions of their experiences are some of the most iconic artifacts of American history. This Black History Month, we explore Black resistance through visual art, literature, and other art forms, and we highlight the central role of Black artists and Black art in American aesthetics and culture.

These books from PUP’s catalog focus on an iconic historical engraving, an award-winning immigrant writer, Black literature under surveillance, an important contemporary visual artist, and the poetry of loss, memory, and the natural world.

One of the most iconic images of slavery is a schematic wood engraving depicting the human cargo hold of a slave ship. First published by British abolitionists in 1788, it exposed this widespread commercial practice for what it really was–shocking, immoral, barbaric, unimaginable. Printed as handbills and broadsides, the image Cheryl Finley has termed the “slave ship icon” was easily reproduced, and by the end of the eighteenth century it was circulating by the tens of thousands around the Atlantic rim. Committed to Memory provides the first in-depth look at how this artifact of the fight against slavery became an enduring symbol of black resistance, identity, and remembrance.

Beautifully illustrated, Committed to Memory features works from around the world, taking readers from the United States and England to West Africa and the Caribbean. It shows how contemporary black artists and their allies have used this iconic eighteenth-century engraving to reflect on the trauma of slavery and come to terms with its legacy.

“Create dangerously, for people who read dangerously. This is what I’ve always thought it meant to be a writer. Writing, knowing in part that no matter how trivial your words may seem, someday, somewhere, someone may risk his or her life to read them.”—Create Dangerously

In this deeply personal book, the celebrated Haitian-American writer Edwidge Danticat reflects on art and exile, examining what it means to be an immigrant artist from a country in crisis. Inspired by Albert Camus’ lecture, “Create Dangerously,” and combining memoir and essay, Danticat tells the stories of artists, including herself, who create despite, or because of, the horrors that drove them from their homelands and that continue to haunt them. Danticat also suggests that the aftermaths of natural disasters in Haiti and the United States reveal that the countries are not as different as many Americans might like to believe.

Create Dangerously is an eloquent and moving expression of Danticat’s belief that immigrant artists are obliged to bear witness when their countries of origin are suffering from violence, oppression, poverty, and tragedy.

Brooklyn-born Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-88) was one of the most important artists of the 1980s. A key figure in the New York art scene, he inventively explored the interplay between words and images throughout his career, first as a member of SAMO, a graffiti group active on the Lower East Side in the late 1970s, and then as a painter acclaimed for his unmistakable Neoexpressionist style. From 1980 to 1987, he filled numerous working notebooks with drawings and handwritten texts. This facsimile edition reproduces the pages of eight of these fascinating and rarely seen notebooks for the first time.

The Notebooks are filled with images and words that recur in Basquiat’s paintings and other works. Iconic drawings and pictograms of crowns, teepees, and hatch-marked hearts share space with handwritten texts, including notes, observations, and poems that often touch on culture, race, class, and life in New York. Like his other work, the notebooks vividly demonstrate Basquiat’s deep interests in comic, street, and pop art, hip-hop, politics, and the ephemera of urban life. They also provide an intimate look at the working process of one of the most creative forces in contemporary American art.

Few institutions seem more opposed than African American literature and J. Edgar Hoover’s white-bread Federal Bureau of Investigation. But behind the scenes the FBI’s hostility to black protest was energized by fear of and respect for black writing. Drawing on nearly 14,000 pages of newly released FBI files, F.B. Eyes exposes the Bureau’s intimate policing of five decades of African American poems, plays, essays, and novels. Starting in 1919, year one of Harlem’s renaissance and Hoover’s career at the Bureau, secretive FBI “ghostreaders” monitored the latest developments in African American letters. By the time of Hoover’s death in 1972, these ghostreaders knew enough to simulate a sinister black literature of their own. The official aim behind the Bureau’s close reading was to anticipate political unrest. Yet, as William J. Maxwell reveals, FBI surveillance came to influence the creation and public reception of African American literature in the heart of the twentieth century.

Illuminating both the serious harms of state surveillance and the ways in which imaginative writing can withstand and exploit it, F.B. Eyes is a groundbreaking account of a long-hidden dimension of African American literature.

In Radioactive Starlings, award-winning poet Myronn Hardy explores the divergences between the natural world and technology, asking what progress means when it destroys the places that sustain us. Primarily set in North Africa and the Middle East, but making frequent reference to the poet’s native United States, these poems reflect on loss, beauty, and dissent, as well as memory and the contemporary world’s relationship to the collective past.

A meditation on the complexities of transformation, cultures, and politics, Radioactive Starlings is an important collection from a highly accomplished young poet.

 

Zora Neale Hurston in 2017: How Art Can Help Us Remember and Understand Disaster

Princeton University Press will donate the net proceeds from the sale of The Flood Year 1927 to hurricane relief through December 31, 2017

by Susan Scott Parrish

ParrishHarvey. Irma. Jose. Maria. Since August 17, one hurricane has chased the tail winds of its predecessor without pause. Three of these have made landfall in the United States, making the 2017 Atlantic hurricane season a record-breaker in number and intensity. We are getting used to having each season push the previous one out of our awareness—out of that space we leave in our brains to house the images and statistics of environmental disasters. Can you who live outside Louisiana remember the interminable, flooding rains of August 2016? This season, though, the attention obliteration rate has sped up. In our minds, we hold maps of damage, YouTube clips of world-bending wind, or aerial shots of inundated neighborhoods for but one week, when the mind needs to clear out room for the newer data. If you or your loved ones have not been directly in harm’s way, what will it take to help you remember Harvey, Irma, Jose, Maria?

This is where well-crafted works of art can make a difference. Here I am using a broad definition of “art” to include documentary and feature films, books of nonfiction and fiction, collage and painting, drama, in-depth podcasts and so on. Part of why we will long remember Katrina is because of the catastrophic human error at play. Another reason is the artists who fashioned durable cultural markers in its aftermath. From Spike Lee’s When the Levees Broke to Dave Eggers’s Zeitoun to Natasha Trethewey’s Beyond Katrina to Kara Walker’s “Post Katrina, Adrift,” each artist put significant attention into choices about representation: Lee’s ironic or plangent juxtaposition of sound and image, Eggers’s tight point-of-view narrative focus, Trethewey’s alternation of memoir and lyric poetry, and Walker’s careful reworking of a Theodore Gericault monumental history painting. Their attention to aesthetics, to making meaning and form coalesce, calls us to give our attention to an event long after its apparent end.

Let us go back before 2005, then, and think about art’s relationship to a much older hurricane and flood, a disaster that might have slipped from history were it not for a remarkable work of fiction. I want to think about Zora Neale Huston’s novel Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937) and how it has kept awareness of the Okeechobee hurricane and flood of 1928 alive all these years—and how it was virtually alone in doing so until historians and journalists told its story in nonfiction form in the early 21st century.

Located west of Palm Peach, Lake Okeechobee covers over seven hundred and twenty square miles, making it the third largest freshwater lake within U.S. borders. Okeechobee used to release its waters in a slow cascade southward through saw-grass prairies all the way down to the Bay of Florida. Beginning in the 1880s, entrepreneurs from the northern U.S. and Britain dug massive canals west, east, and south of the lake to drain off the vast and now arable acreage to its south. What had been the Everglades became nine foot-deep rich earth—“the muck”—which came to yield large crops of vegetables and, most of all, sugar cane. Knowing that flooding was a possibility in a hurricane-prone region, the state built, between 1923 and 1925, a five-foot-high mud dike along forty-seven miles of the lake’s southern border. Housing for the agricultural laborers, who had emigrated there from throughout the South and Caribbean, stood right up against the presumably contained lake.

On September 16, 1928, a hurricane touched land on the eastern coast of Florida at Lake Worth with 130mph winds. With an eye 25 to 30 miles across, the winds pummeled Palm Beach around 6:45pm and then, moving as a counter-clockwise whirl in the darkness, came at Lake Okeechobee from the northwest corner, pushing a ten-foot wall of water over its bottom rim, and breaking down the paltry dike across a twenty-one mile expanse. Between 2,500 and 3,000 people died that night, almost half of the local population. More than three-quarters of the dead were African-American and Afro-Caribbean. According to one historian, more people of African descent died on that day than any other single day in U.S. history. While sixty-nine white bodies were placed in a marked burial ground at Woodlawn Cemetery in Palm Beach, six hundred and seventy-four black bodies were placed in a mass grave at the pauper’s field in West Palm Beach; another sixteen hundred were interred in Port Mayaca, on high ground to the east of Okeechobee—sites which remained unmarked until 2003. Scores of corpses were lost in the Everglades, and scores more were burned in funeral pyres. African-Americans were conscripted at gunpoint to do all of this work of gruesome clean up, including the putative separation of bodies by race, something the bodies’ decay made unintelligible.

Because Florida leaders were trying to develop the state as a holiday oasis, and a sure real estate investment, they didn’t want news of the disaster to travel. Most of the deaths had taken place quickly, in the middle of the night, fifty miles west of Palm Beach, in a rural locale full of migrant workers. The powerful who had access to national media to broadcast the disaster chose to remain quiet. The powerless did not seem to have a storyteller of note. At least not right away.

Zora Neale Hurston was not in harm’s way during the September 16th hurricane and flood, but she heard oral accounts when in Florida the following spring. In 1935, she then spent time in Belle Glade, a town on Lake Okeechobee’s southeastern edge, when she was gathering music for the Library of Congress, at which point she surely gathered more oral testimony of the flood and its aftermath. In late 1936, while in Haiti, Hurston wrote what would become one of the great American novels of the century, Their Eyes Were Watching God.

It tells the story of Janie Crawford, her search for a natural-feeling and play-filled love, an adventure as big as the horizon, and a way to shed the plantation legacies of her family and region. Hurston the ethnographer included many scenes of tale-telling, believing that how a community amuses itself was as deep a truth as how it withstands assaults. Because of its humor, contemporaneous reviewers—like Richard Wright and Alain Locke—dismissed the novel for its “minstrel” echoes and its lack of “sharp” social analysis. When the novel was revived by black feminists in the 1970s, it was as a story that empowered black women—to seek their desires and to speak when and how they wanted. The 80s and 90s saw critical appreciation of how finely Hurston intertwined the oral black vernacular with standard written English. Since Katrina and the levee disaster of 2005, Hurston’s deep engagement with the overlapping histories of race and environment in the U.S. has become increasingly evident. In other words, people are now paying more attention to the hurricane and flood toward whose crescendo and violent denouement the entire novel moves.

About three-quarters of the way into the novel, Janie is finally married to someone, Tea Cake, whose sensitivity to the green world seems to match her own. They are “natural” together, more aware of fish and trees and bees than social propriety or acquiring property. Picking beans just southeast of Lake Okeechobee, the pair lives in low-lying company quarters pushed up against the massive lake. It is mid-September, 1928. As signs appear of the approaching hurricane, Tea Cake wagers that they should stay behind. He forgets his own environmental knowledge and puts trust in the white bosses who haven’t evacuated. Hurston’s narrator bitingly comments on the weakness of this decision: “if the castles thought themselves secure, the cabins needn’t worry. Their decision was already made as always.” Trusting white authority and distrusting one’s own affiliation with nature turns out to be a dismal mistake. The lake bursts through the feeble mud dike and reclaims its old wetlands sovereignty: Okeechobee “seized hold of his dikes and ran forward until he met the quarters.” All in all, “the sea was walking the earth with a heavy heel.”

Evacuating too late from the ‘Glades, Tea Cake and Janie make their harrowing way eastward to Palm Beach. During the journey, Janie tries to cover them with debris but is instead carried aloft over and into water. While saving her, Tea Cake is bitten on the cheek by a rabid dog. They finally reach what they believe to be the “city of refuge,” Palm Beach. It turns out, though, that the violence of the storm has here turned into human-on-human violence. Two white guards force Tea Cake at gunpoint to join a “small army” to clear wreckage and separate dead bodies Jim Crow-style. Tea Cake soon goes mad from the rabies and becomes homicidal with his wife. Janie shoots and kills him in self-defense.

When the novel was first published in 1937, its cover featured a woodcut image of a harrowed landscape. A Jehovah-like figure is hurling bolts and winds at the earth; trees bow in response and a house squats in flood waters up to its roof. Clearly, Hurston saw the hurricane and flood, which provided the book’s climax, and brought about the death of its male hero, as central to the story. Though contemporaneous reviewers were distracted by what they took to be the novel’s “quaint” humor, they missed the storm and the fact that Hurston buries prophecies about the storm to come in that very humor. Later critics who focused exclusively on the romantic odyssey also missed the fact that Hurston, through the flood, judges the apparently fitting third husband, and finds him wanting. That he failed to listen to his own environmental experience and defers instead to his white boss indicates the limits of the potential for their love. Finally, the exposé of Jim Crow, deferred through so much of the novel to make space for a study of the southern black community on its own terms, finally arrives with—and in the shape of—the man-made disaster. Hurston carefully included historic details from the ’28 flood that she had gathered through oral research so that the flood would not be simply a dramatic device but also act as a memorial structure to the officially unmarked disaster.

Every time Their Eyes Were Watching God is read, there is the potential for a profound encounter with this almost ninety-year-old event. Though Florida boosters at the time did not want the story broadcast, Hurston slowly transformed its obscured details and hidden remains into a meaningful story to withstand the decades. This September, Florida officials have been transparent about the vulnerability of their state. And Florida mayors have been some of the first to prepare in advance for how climate change will change their coastal cities. Even in this condition of open-eyed avowal, artists continue to have a role. Artists’ capacities to summon human care for strangers encountered through narratives and representations and to invest them with meaning is a crucial part of our world.

Susan Scott Parrish is Professor in the Department of English Language and Literature and the Program in the Environment at the University of Michigan. She is the author of American Curiosity: Cultures of Natural History in the Colonial British Atlantic World and The Flood Year 1927: A Cultural History.

 

The Law is a White Dog author Colin Dayan debunks the rationality of law

What do abused dogs, prisoners tortured in Guantánamo and supermax facilities, and slaves killed by the state have in common? They have all been deprived of their personhood by the law. In The Law is a White Dog, Colin Dayan shows how the law can be used to dehumanize and marginalize, even as it upholds civil order. Dayan puts the topic in historical context, showing how these issues are still prevalent today. In an interview with WFHB Indiana, the author speaks to recent instances of police brutality. Listen for a fresh take on a a timely issue.
Dayan

Happy Birthday to the original champion of “simple living”, Henry David Thoreau!

Henry David Thoreau, born 199 years ago today, was an essayist, political philosopher, poet, tax resister, naturalist and abolitionist, whose writings and methods anticipated modern day environmental and “simple living” movements by well over a century. Born in Concord, Massachusetts, he died of Tuberculosis at only 44 years old. In spite of his passionate positions on various issues of the day, from nonviolent resistance to taxation, his political writings made little impact in his short lifetime. Today of course, the transcendental author is one of the most widely studied and taught; his hugely influential memoir, Walden: Life in the Woods and as his social criticism alike continue to resonate deeply with modern readers.

thoreauThoreau’s life story is full of fascinating bits of color—he worked at a pencil factory, was influenced by Indian spiritual thought, and followed various Hindu customs. Few writers have been as widely quoted, from the famous, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation”) to the obscure (“Who are the estranged? Two friends explaining”). Thoreau’s thoughts on topics ranging from sex to solitude, manners to miracles can be found in The Quotable Thoreau, edited by Jeffrey Cramer. The book contains over 2,000 passages, thematically arranged, and a true treasure for students of the famous minimalist.

Happy birthday to Henry David Thoreau, a man as witty as he was profound, and well ahead of his time.

National Poetry Month: Featured reading by Austin Smith

almanac smith jacketAustin Smith’s debut collection, Almanac, is a lyrical and narrative meditation on the loss of small family farms. Most of the poems are personal, set in the rural Midwest where Smith grew up. Though they are geographically specific, the greater themes such as death and perseverance are as universal as they are disquieting.

The collection is also a meditation on apprenticeship. Smith, the son of a poet, reflects on the responsibility of a young poet to mourn what is vanishing.

Listen to Austin Smith’s reading of his poem, “Coach Chance”.

austin smithAustin Smith was born in the rural Midwest. Most recently, he was a Wallace Stegner Fellow in fiction at Stanford University. He has written a collection of poems entitled Almanac: Poems.

One Day in the Life of the English Language

In an age of text messages, tweets, and all manner of shorthand, do correct grammar and usage matter anymore? According to Frank L. Cioffi, author of One Day in the Life of the English Language, they do indeed matter, but what today’s writing students need is an “anti-handbook”. In just such a book, Cioffi examines everything from the most serious newspaper articles to celebrity gossip magazines. Drawing his examples over the course of a single day, he illustrates the importance of applying grammatical principles to “real world” writing.

In this newly released video, learn more about Cioffi’s One Day in the Life of the English Language, including his stance on the changes in language owed to technology.

One Day in the Life of the English Language: A Microcosmic Usage Handbook by Frank L. Cioffi from Princeton University Press on Vimeo.

One Day in the Life jacketFrank L. Cioffi is professor of English at Baruch College, City University of New York, and has taught writing at Princeton and Indiana universities and at Bard and Scripps colleges. He is also the author of The Imaginative Argument: A Practical Manifesto for Writers (Princeton), among other books.

The New Yorker’s Fall Reading List; Cioffi’s “One Day in the Life of the English Language”

Unsure of what to add to your Fall Reading List? Refer to New Yorker‘s Mary Norris.

One Day in the Life jacketMary “comma queen” Norris, contributor and proofreader for the New Yorker,  likes to keep up-to-date on the latest and greatest books about English grammar, language and writing. In a recent New Yorker piece, “What We’re Reading this Fall”, Norris writes, “People might expect that, as a copy editor, I’d be absorbed in the new usage manual by Frank L. Cioffi, ‘One Day in the Life of the English Language,’… They wouldn’t be that far off.”

While she continues to admit her current absorption in a fiction work about a proofreader, One Day in the Life of the English Language: A Microcosmic Usage Handbook, by Frank L. Cioffi, is certainly on her mind and surely listed on her Fall Reading List.

Using real-life examples to debunk myths of digital-age English and emphasize the inevitable evolution of the English language, this one-of-a-kind anti-handbook handbook convinces and motivates readers to use correct and effective grammar in their day-to-day lives.

Join Norris by adding One Day in the Life of the English Language to your own Fall Reading List and discover the significance of grammar in today’s world and why the ways of words matter.

Frank L. Cioffi is professor of English at Baruch College, City University of New York, and has taught writing at Princeton and Indiana Universities and at Bard and Scripps Colleges. He is the author of The Imaginative Argument: A Practical Manifesto for Writers (Princeton), among other books.

Congratulations to Paula Rabinowitz! American Pulp: How Paperbacks Brought Modernism to Main Street is Co-Winner of the 2015 SHARP DeLong Book History Book Prize

 American Pulp: How Paperbacks Brought Modernism to Main Street

by Paula Rabinowitz

Co-Winner of the 2015 SHARP DeLong Book History Book Prize, The Society for the History of Authorship, Reading and Publishing

American Pulp jacket

The Society for the History of Authorship, Reading and Publishing was founded to create a global network for book historians working in a broad range of scholarly disciplines…SHARP annually awards a $1,000 prize to the author of the best book on any aspect of the creation, dissemination, or uses of script or print published in the previous year. Owing to the generosity of the DeLong family in endowing the prize, from 2004 it has been known as the George A. and Jean S. DeLong Book History Book Prize.”

The online announcement is here.

Chapter one is available here.

Happy Birthday to Henry David Thoreau

Henry David Thoreau turned 198 on Sunday, July 12. In honor of everyone’s favorite experimental hermit, enjoy these quotes taken from The Quotable Thoreau edited by Jeffrey S. Cramer.

k9391On Change
“The higher the mountain on which you stand, the less change in the prospect from year to year, from age to age. Above a certain height there is no change.”
To H.G.O. Blake, February 27, 1853, in Familiar Letters, pp. 210-211

On Education and Learning
“It is strange that men are in such haste to get fame as teachers rather than knowledge as learners.”
Written March 11, 1856, in his Journal, vol. VIII, p. 205

On Human Nature
“Men have become the tools of their tools.”
Written July 16, 1845, in his Journal, vol. 2, p. 162

 

On Nature
“There can be no black melancholy to him who lives in the midst of Nature and has his senses still.”
Walden, p. 131

On The Seasons
“Is not all the summer akin to a paradise?”
Written May 9, 1852, in his Journal, vol. 5, p. 47

And be sure to check out The Writings of Henry D. Thoreau!

Jeff Nunokawa on Mothers

In Note Book, Princeton Professor Jeff Nunokawa writes frequently (and beautifully) about his mother, from her approach to moles to her aversion to fiction. It’s a perfect day for these choice excerpts from Note Book. Happy Mother’s Day!

1340. The Afterlife of Moles

My mother just hated them—moles, I mean—and if you were a child of hers, your earliest premonition of Ahab had to be the sight of her, out in the backyard, smoking, frowning, and plotting to destroy her own version of the White Whale. It was trench warfare: the moles would dig up the yard, pissing my mother off, big time, and my mother would stick garden hoses into the underground passages through which they, the moles, would go about their business, and whose upward and visible signs were the mounds of dirt that would drive her, my mother, to a state of more than domestic Fury. And then, having set out the means of flushing out her enemy, she would sit back, shovel in hand, watching and waiting, waiting and watching. She got one once. My brother, four or five at the time, overheard her describe her gruesome triumph to a neighbor.

“Mommy, do Moles go to Heaven?”

“I hope not!” she replied with confusing candor. “Why did you say that to him?” I asked.

“I had to tell the truth!” she answered.

And she does. Always—have to tell what she regards as the truth, no matter what.
Note: What’s there to add to the Truth?


1388. “The Unteachable Monkey,” “The Fables of
Panchatantra,” “Indian Humor”

The Wisdom of China and India, ed. Lin Yutang (1942)

Inspecting my mother’s primary bookshelf, one last time, before my second sleep and flight home, I realize with a mild start that I perform this ritual whenever I am about to leave her. And that’s right: these books, a small community library, are the bibliographic correlative and component of her moral competence. Of course I open these books almost never. Most are very old and unpleasant in appearance, and by the looks of them, to my impatient eye at least, not at all “my bag”—Pearl Buck novels; heroic accounts of Andrew Jackson, depicting “Old Hickory” as a paradigm populist; atavistic exposés of power elites, et cetera. In a rare impulse, I take one of these books down from the place where it has rested unnoticed for decades—Professor Lin Yutang’s tome, cited above. A smooth and surprising volume, filled with all manner of familiar and unfamiliar satire and solemnity.

Reading along, I come across the story whose title forms the title of this note. The story is amusing and enlightening enough—all about a monkey whose resistance to helpful instruction becomes sufficiently violent to murder the emissary of enlightenment. I am struck more, though, by the wilderness of teachable monkeys the title of this anecdote obliquely surveys.

I hope I am one of the teachable ones. My mother, I suppose, thinks that I am, but mothers often give their children the benefit of the doubt.

Note: In fairness to her, she is hardly uncritical on the subject of Andrew Jackson.


3027. “What the hell can you learn from Las Vegas?”

The Author’s Mother: A Play in Eleven Lines
The Author’s Mother: What do you want for your birthday? Jeff: I’m glad you asked. Two books by
Bob Venturi, preferably early editions …
The Author’s Mother: You’ll get whatever edition is cheapest. …
Jeff: Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture.
The Author’s Mother: Hold on, I have to write this down … “Complexity and what?”
Jeff: Contradiction!
The Author’s Mother: Complexity and Continuation in Architecture would have been a better title.
Jeff: Yes, but that would have been a different book, now wouldn’t it?
The Author’s Mother: Yeah. A better book! Jeff: Also, Learning from Las Vegas.
The Author’s Mother: What the hell can you learn from Las Vegas?!

Note: You see my problem.


3302. Tradition and the Individual Eavesdropper

Kafka eavesdropped on tradition. … The main reason why this eavesdropping demands such effort is that only the most indistinct sounds reach the listener.

(W. Benjamin to G. Scholem, June 12, 1938)

—which doesn’t mean that you can’t transmit a little, the Tradition you only half hear, pass it on in bits and pieces—the defense of the truth, and of those who would extend it, even by evading it; the opposition to war and the devotion to peace; the styles of elegance and expertise in art and science; the beauty of the plain and simple (and the cryptic and the complicated); the methods for coping with the unbearable, and caring for that which makes it less so; the ways of loving what is, and laboring to bring about what should be.

My mom likes to tell the story about how once, when she and my dad were first married (this must have been sometime during the second Eisenhower administration), they were out somewhere in the woods with some other newlyweds, staying in some kind of log cabin (somewhere in eastern Washington State, I suppose—I can’t recall the details) without electricity or running water. One morning, my dad came back from the well with an empty bucket. (“Your father didn’t know anything about priming the pump!” my mother reports with gleeful and affectionate condescension.) Well, as little as he knew, I know less, and my ears glaze over whenever my mother seeks to explain with methodical clarity the practice and principle of this hydraulic feat for drawing water where all seems dry. I have never delved to consider the literal ground of what is best known as a popularizing metaphor for a central element of Keynesian economics, and certainly have no interest in disturbing the perfect record of my ignorance. But I like to think about how much my mother likes to tell me all about it.

Note: “(a sort of theology passed on by whispers dealing with matters discredited and obsolete)”
(Benjamin to Scholem).


4004. “a love stronger than any impulse that could have marred it”

She never repented that she had given up position and fortune to marry Will Ladislaw. … They were bound to each other by a love stronger than any impulse which could have marred it.

(George Eliot, Middlemarch)

My mother likes to remind me regularly of her aversion to fiction and, in particular, the kind of “fancy” fiction I have spent a good portion of my life studying and teaching. I was thus surprised this morning, in my semi-annual survey of her strange library—manuals for Hikers, Self-Helpers, and Chinese Communists; a celebratory biography of Andrew Jack- son; memoirs of Native American Warriors and dictionaries of Ancient Hawaiian Chants; histories of the Middle East and the Wild West; old (very old) field guides to flora and fauna, near and far; textbooks on Organic Chemistry and the like— to discover, nearly hidden in the thickets of this old curiosity shop, one of “my” books—a novel I am not alone in regarding as one of the greatest stories ever told. More surprising, still: the volume is, throughout, underlined and annotated by what could only be her hand.

I was less surprised to discover that amongst the passages she has marked for note are the lines that begin this report. Decades after their divorce, my parents remain bound together by an unfaded, though now hardly mentioned, belief that risking anything short of everything to marry each other (they are of different races; that was a different time) would have been a cowardice they would have both repented till the day they died. I like to think that my mother took some satisfaction when she came across a bare statement of the fact of the faith that determined the direction of her life—“a feeling that,

Note: in gaining the man she loved, she would gain something for the whole world” (E. M. Forster, A Room with a View).


4047. “Several people on the trip told me that I was an
inspiration, which made me feel good” (The Author’s
Mother)

And now you will no longer wonder that the recollection of this incident on the Acropolis should have troubled me so often since I myself have grown old and stand in need of forbearance and can travel no more.

(Freud, “A Disturbance of Memory on the Acropolis”)

Many years ago, in the middle of the hardest defeat of my life, my mother came to visit me in New York. My apartment there is small; I, especially in my compromised state, smaller still, and my powers to accommodate her sizable stock of certitudes and self-doubts—their aggregate volume sufficient to fill any proscenium worth its salt—powers of forbearance that hardly amount to the armor of Hercules even in the best of times, reduced to the tattered thinness of a single fig leaf. She couldn’t have come at a worse time, I thought—until I realized that she couldn’t have come at a better one.

Seeing that I was in no shape to chaperone her, she struck out on her own. (She is, after all, according to her own Ancient History, of “pioneer stock.”) One morning, she left before I was awake and called me later from the viewing platform at the top of what was then the City’s tallest building, while I was still in bed. From this height, she felt called upon to tell me something about herself that she instructed me not to repeat, and I will not disobey her. What I can tell you is that what she conveyed to me when I was troubled, and in need of forbearance, was a memory of falling down and getting up again that dissipated the disturbance that left me thinking I could travel no more.

And now I no longer wonder that my sorrow at the thought of the day that she will pass beyond me is matched by the strength with which she has prepared me to meet it.

Note: “The two days in Athens were great but tiring. I actually made all of the excursions (one exception: a Venetian castle in Crete, but went everywhere else). Some people did not climb up the Acropolis, but I did. Why come to Greece and not go up? Was worth it. I was glad that I had both walking sticks. It really made it possible. Several people on the trip told me that I was an inspiration, which made me feel good. I will tell you all more about the trip later, and show you the pictures when I get them done” (extracted from my mother’s report on her most recent travels; her destination this time was the Mediterranean rather than Manhattan).

Which of these 15 myths of digital-age English do you believe?

One Day in the Life of the English Language by Frank Cioffi, a new style guide that eschews memorization in favor of internalizing how sentences actually work, handily refutes these 15 myths of digital-age English. Think brevity is best? Swear by your default settings? Feel sure the internet is a “total latrine”? Try out this “True or False” test and see whether you’re the digital-age wordsmith you thought you were:

Myth 1 image1.  In the age of the tweet, short and concise is always the best.
True, true, short messages are often the best. But not always. Sometimes one needs to go on at some length. Sometimes it is necessary to provide a context, especially if one is trying to communicate more than just minimal information. And sometimes the very brevity or terseness of a tweet makes it impossible to understand.

2.  My word processing program doesn’t let me change margins, spacing, or other aspects of format.
Most word processing programs can be set up to accommodate any standard style; however, you need to use the program’s capabilities and not always accept default settings. In Microsoft Word, for example, many writers allow the program its silly default—to put an extra line space between paragraphs of the same format. This should be unselected as a default off the “paragraph” menu.

Myth 3 image3.  My word processing program will highlight and automatically fix any errors I make.
These automatic correction programs are notoriously unreliable, as they often “fix” writing that is in fact correct. For example, at first I thought one of my students had subject-verb agreement problems; then I noted that the program tried to get me to introduce such errors into my own work. You, not the program, are the mind behind the words. Don’t rely on your program to fix everything. Let it check—but you check too.

4.  “Logical punctuation” is the best option in most situations.
This idea usually refers to putting punctuation either inside or outside of quotation marks. The logicality of doing so or not doing so has been questioned by many. It’s probably best to follow conventions of a given style, unless you are not working within any particular field. In that case, you can invent new rules; just don’t expect others to understand or follow them.

5. People don’t really read anymore; they merely “scan a page for information.”
Gary Shteyngart brings up this idea in his 2011 novel Super Sad True Love Story. It’s interesting and has some truth to it: I agree that many people don’t read with a lot of care or seek to understand and internalize the written ideas they encounter. But some do. Think of that “some” as your audience. At the same time, consider the needs of an audience that just “scans the page.” Ask yourself, “Does this page I’ve just written include information worth scanning?”

Cioffi jacket6.  Anyone can publish written material nowadays, so what’s the value of Standard Written English?
With the Internet, it’s true that anyone can publish now. And many self-publishing options are open to any writer seeking to get work in print. Simply publishing something is now less a guarantee of its excellence or importance than it once was, but if you strive to have your work read—by more than family and friends—it will have to respect some standard forms and conventions. Or to put it another way, no matter what your publishing goals, if you want people to read your work, you will have to write with a high level of competence and lucidity.

7.  People are much less precise and exact than they used to be, now that they have computers to rely on.
This is clearly not the case in all situations. In fact, people must be much more careful now with details such as spelling, especially when entering passwords or usernames. In many digital contexts, attentiveness to language accuracy is obligatory. If you are inattentive, you often can’t even use the computer or the program. If you don’t respect the syntax of a program, it just won’t run.

8.  “Talking street” is what most people want to do anyway.
I think that most people have to use multiple forms of English. They might speak one way to their family, one way to their friends, one way on their jobs, and another way, perhaps, when they need to write a paper for a college course they are taking. People can and should become multilingual.

9.  Most grammatical stuff is of minor importance—kind of too boring and persnickety to bother with.
I agree that there are more important things in the world, but I have been making the argument throughout this book that in fact these “minor” matters do seem to make a difference to some people—and a major difference to a small minority. And writ large, they make a big difference in our society. Admittedly, there is a persnickety quality to some of the material, but isn’t specialization all about being persnickety?

10.  Someone else can “wordsmith” my ideas; I just generate them.
The line between the idea and the expression of it is very fine; that is, how you say something is often inextricable from what you say. You need to take charge of not just coming up with a basic idea or notion but also of how that idea gets expressed. If you have a stake in how an idea exists in its final form, you should take great care with its exact verbal formulation.

11.  Since so many “styles” (MLA, APA, Chicago . . .) are available and used by various specialties, it’s pointless to worry about this kind of superficial overlay.
There are a lot of forms and styles, to be sure. But you need to find the form that’s conventional in your professional field and use that. If you don’t, you almost automatically label yourself an “outsider” to that field, or perhaps even an interloper. And sometimes, just abiding by the conventions of a style gains you credibility in and of itself, allows entrée into a field.

12.  There’s no possibility of an original idea anymore: it’s all been said.
One certainly feels as though this might be possible, considering the ever-expanding scope of the Internet and the existence of over seven billion human minds on the planet. However, each of us has his or her own individual experience—which is unique. And out of that, I feel, originality can emerge. You must really want that originality to emerge, though, and resist succumbing to the pressure of the multitude to simply conform to what’s standard, acceptable, predictable, dull.

13.  If something is published on the Internet, it’s true.
I know that no one really believes this. But I want to emphasize that a great deal of material on the Internet is simply false—posted by people who are not reliable, well-informed, or even honest. Much Internet material that claims to be true is in fact only a form of advertising. And finally, do keep in mind that almost anyone can create websites and post content, whether they are sane or insane, children or adults, good or evil, informed or misinformed.

myth 4 image14.  The Internet is a total latrine.
A few years ago, I heard a well-known public intellectual give a talk for which this was the thesis. And there are certainly many things on the Internet and about the Internet that bear out such a judgment. However, there are also some amazing things, which prompt me to say that the Internet is the greatest accumulation of information and knowledge in the history of humankind. But you need to learn how to use it efficiently and effectively, and sort the good from the bad.

Myth 15 image

15.  I can cut and paste my way through any college paper assignment.
There are many opportunities to create what looks like your own work—cutting and pasting here, auto- summarizing there, adding a few transitional sentences, and mashing it all together. I don’t recommend this kind of work; it doesn’t really benefit you to create it. You want to write papers of your own, ones that express your own ideas and that use your own language. The cut-and-pasters are ultimately sacrificing their humanity, as they become people of the machine. And when they’re caught, the penalties can be severe.

How did you do?

Frank L. Cioffi is professor of English at Baruch College, City University of New York, and has taught writing at Princeton and Indiana universities and at Bard and Scripps colleges. He is the author of The Imaginative Argument: A Practical Manifesto for Writers (Princeton), among other books.

Graphics by Chris Ferrante