Bryan Wagner on a controversial folktale: The Tar Baby

WagnerPerhaps the best-known version of the tar baby story was published in 1880 by Joel Chandler Harris in Uncle Remus: His Songs and His Sayings, and popularized in Song of the South, the 1946 Disney movie. Other versions of the story, however, have surfaced in many other places throughout the world, including Nigeria, Brazil, Corsica, Jamaica, India, and the Philippines. The Tar Baby: A Global History by Bryan Wagner offers a fresh analysis of this deceptively simple story about a fox, a rabbit, and a doll made of tar and turpentine, tracing its history and its connections to slavery, colonialism, and global trade. Wagner explores how the tar baby story, thought to have originated in Africa, came to exist in hundreds of forms on five continents.

What is the tar baby story?

BW: There are hundreds of versions of the story, involving many characters and situations. It’s not possible to summarize the story in a way that can encompass all of its variants. The story does, however, follow a broad outline. I provide the following example in the book: “A rabbit and a wolf are neighbors. In the summer, the rabbit wastes his time singing songs, smoking cigarettes, and drinking wine, while the wolf stays busy working in his fields. The rabbit then steals from the wolf all winter. The next year, the wolf decides he will catch the rabbit by placing a tar baby, a lifelike figurine made from tar softened with turpentine, on the way to his fields. When the rabbit meets the tar baby in the road, and the tar baby does not reply to his greetings, the rabbit becomes angry and punches, kicks, and head-butts the tar baby until he is stuck at five points and left to the mercy of the wolf. The rabbit, however, is not trapped for long as he tricks the wolf into tossing him into the briar patch where he makes his escape.” In addition to this summary, I also provide an appendix with versions of the story transcribed in Nigeria, Tanzania, South Africa, the Cape Verde Islands, the Bahamas, Corsica, Brazil, Mexico, Colombia, the Philippines, and the United States. I also include a map of these stories representing when and where they were collected.

Why did you write a book about the tar baby story?

BW: The tar baby has some familiar associations. People think about the ways in which the term “tar baby” has been used as a racial slur. Or they think about it as a figure of speech referring to a situation that gets worse the harder you try to solve it. Or they think about the version of the story that was published by Joel Chandler Harris in Uncle Remus: His Songs and His Sayings (1881). Or they think about the adaptation of the Uncle Remus stories in the Walt Disney movie Song of the South (1946). Most people don’t know that that the story of the tar baby was not invented by Harris. They don’t know that the story exists in hundreds of versions in the oral tradition that were collected on five continents in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Scholars during these decades were fascinated by the story. They wanted to know how the story came to exist in all of these far-flung places. Some people, including Harris, thought the tar baby story was a key example of the cultural tradition that slaves brought with them from Africa to the Americas. Others believed that the tar baby originated not in Africa but in India or France. Still others believed it was invented by American Indians and borrowed by African Americans. The argument was fierce, and the stakes were high. Did culture belong to a race of people? Or did it cross over racial lines? Did culture construct or transcend racial identity? These questions have stayed with us even as they have been applied to a wide range of examples. It is important to recognize that the tar baby was one of the earliest and most important cases through which these questions were formulated.

The tar baby story is important to ideas about culture and race. Is it also important for politics?

BW: Yes that’s right. Increasingly over the twentieth century, scholars looked to trickster stories like the tar baby for evidence of how peasants and slaves reflected on the politics of everyday life.

Peasants and slaves told stories like the tar baby, it was argued, to share lessons about how to survive in a hostile world where the cards were stacked against you. These ideas were essential to intellectual movements like the new social history and certain strains of political anthropology. At the same time, other scholars have questioned this approach, arguing that it turns politics into the uninhibited pursuit of self-interest, failing to account for the importance of cooperation. I think that scholars have been right to bring these big questions about culture and politics to the story, but I also think that the answers they have discovered in the story have been insufficient. My book approaches the tar baby as a collective experiment in political philosophy. It argues that we need to understand the ways in which the story addresses universal problems—freedom and captivity, labor and value, crime and custom—if we are to gauge its powerful allure for the slaves, fugitives, emigrants, sailors, soldiers, and indentured workers who brought it all the way around the world.

What about the story’s longstanding association with racism? Is “tar baby” a racist term?

BW: That last one is a complex question, but the short answer is yes. Some people like William Safire and John McWhorter have argued that the racism associated with the term “tar baby” is a recent invention, and that the term’s original meaning is not about race. This is disproven by the fact that there are examples from the early nineteenth century where the term was already being used as a racial slur specifically directed at African American children. Harris published his first version of the tar baby story in the Atlanta Constitution at a time when the newspaper was using the term as a racial slur in its news articles. The term’s racism is not incidental to the story. This is also confirmed by the fact that illustrations from early versions of the story represent the tar baby as having phenotypically African facial features. In complex ways, the story is about the history of racism, and for this reason, I don’t think the term should be used in an offhand way as a figure of speech for an intractable situation. This usage is offensive not least for its willful ignorance of the long history of suffering and exploitation that the story attempts in its own way to comprehend.

Bryan Wagner is associate professor in the English Department at the University of California, Berkeley. He is the author of Disturbing the Peace: Black Culture and the Police Power after Slavery and Tar Baby: A Global History.

Brush up on your eighteenth-century British slang with Strange Vernaculars

SorensenWhile eighteenth-century efforts to standardize the English language have long been studied, less well-known are the era’s popular collections of odd slang, criminal argots, provincial dialects, and nautical jargon. Strange Vernaculars by Janet Sorensen delves into how these published works presented the supposed lexicons of the “common people” and traces the ways that these languages, once shunned and associated with outsiders, became objects of fascination in printed glossaries—from The New Canting Dictionary to Francis Grose’s Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue—and in novels, poems, and songs. Check out the whiddes below so you can chounter with the best of them; and don’t be alarmed if some of them sound strange to your modern lugg.

 

Idiot pot—the knowledge box, the head

Rantipole—a rude, romping boy or girl, also a gadabout dissipated woman

Coggle—pebble

Rumbo ken—a pawn shop

Bugher—a dog

Hot bak’d wardens—pears

Golden pippins—apples

Crap-merchant—hangman

Coom—come

Nerst—next

Bingo-mort—a female drunkard

Black mouth—foul, malicious railing

Clod-hopper—a ploughman

Conny-catching—cheating the unwary, figured as hapless rabbits, or coneys

Stauling ken—a house that will receive stolen wares

Autem—church

Nab—head

Bite—cheat or cozen

Fencing cully—receiver of stolen goods

Fambles—hands

Cove—a man

Dimber—pretty

Bowse—drink

Darkeman—night

Whiddes—words

Harmanbeck—a constable

Feather-bed-lane—any bad road, but particularly that betwixt Dunchurch and Daintry

Anglers—cheats, petty thieves

Dead-men—empty pots or bottles on a tavern table

Chuck farthing—a Parish-Clerk

Keffal—a horse

Chittiface—a little puny child

Chounter—to talk pertly and sometimes angrily

Pateepan—a little pie or small pastry

Cow-hearted—fearful

Prog—meat

Scowre—to run away

Stag-evil—A disease, a palsy in the jaws

Thirdendeal—a liquid measure containing three pints

Thokes—fish with broken bellies

A parson’s lemon—a whore

Diver—a pickpocket

Rapping—perjury

Cleave—a wanton woman

Leap in the Dark—execution by hanging

Crimps—contractors for unloading coal ships

Cocquets—warrants

Bully-ruffins—highway-men

Night sneak—house burglary

Nimming—thieving

Collaring the coal—laying hold of money

The college—Newgate prison

Fatal tree—the gallows

Leatherhead—“a thick skull’d, Heavy-handed fellow”

Long-Meg—a very tall woman

Lord—a very crooked deformed or ill-shapen person

Malmasey-nose—A jolly red nose

Brick—loaf of bread

 

Janet Sorensen is associate professor of English at the University of California, Berkeley. She is the author of The Grammar of Empire in Eighteenth-Century British Writing.

Gary Saul Morson & Morton Schapiro: How the study of economics can benefit from the humanities

CentsEconomists often act as if their methods explain all human behavior. But in Cents and Sensibility, an eminent literary critic and a leading economist make the case that the humanities, especially the study of literature, offer economists ways to make their models more realistic, their predictions more accurate, and their policies more effective and just. Gary Saul Morson and Morton Schapiro argue that economists need a richer appreciation of behavior, ethics, culture, and narrative—all of which the great writers teach better than anyone. Original, provocative, and inspiring, Cents and Sensibility brings economics back to its place in the human conversation. Read on to learn more about how the study of economics is lacking, the misreading of Adam Smith, and how the humanities can help.

You clearly think that economics as traditionally practiced is lacking in fundamental ways. Why?
We believe that economic models could be more realistic, their predictions more accurate, and their policies more effective and just, if economics opened itself up to learning from other fields.

But don’t economists already work on subjects within the typical domain of such disciplines as psychology, sociology, anthropology, and history, among others?
It is true that economists apply their models very widely, but they often expropriate topics rather than sincerely engage with other fields. Too often economists act as if other disciplines have the questions, and economics has the answers. It is one thing to tread on the territory of another discipline; it is quite another to be willing to learn from it. Economists have often been imperialistic, presuming that the subject matter of other disciplines could be put on a “sound basis” if handled by economic models. They rarely ask whether the methods and assumptions of other disciplines might help economics. We need a dialogue, and a dialogue goes both ways.

You say that economics can be improved by interaction with the humanities, and especially the study of literature. In what ways does economics fall short so that an understanding of literature might help?
Economists have an especially hard time in three sorts of situations: when culture plays an important role, since one cannot mathematize culture; when contingency prevails and narrative explanation is required; and when ethical problems irreducible to economic models are important. For instance, whether to have a market in kidneys—one topic we address—is not a question that can be adequately addressed solely in economic terms. Economic thinking has something useful to say in many such cases, but not everything.  Great works of literature have offered the richest portraits of human beings we have. If social scientists understood as much about human beings as the great novelists, they could have produced pictures of human beings as believable as those of Jane Austen, George Eliot, or Leo Tolstoy, but none has even come close. The great novelists, who were often keen thinkers who discussed the complexities of human feeling and behavior, must have known something! They also produced the subtlest descriptions of ethical problems we have.

Isn’t economic imperialism the legacy of Adam Smith, the founder of the discipline?
Not at all. Economists, who seldom read The Wealth of Nations and rarely ask students to do so either, present a version of Adam Smith that is largely fictional. A thinker with an immensely complex sense of human nature, and who insisted that human beings care for others in ways that cannot be reduced to self-interest, is presented as a founder of rational choice theory, which presumes the opposite. What has happened is that a few Smithian ideas have been represented as the whole, and then a model based on them alone has been constructed and been attributed to him. While Adam Smith is often invoked to justify a simplistic view of human behavior guided by rational self-interest, and of economic policies that reject any interference with the free functioning of markets, his work was much more nuanced and sophisticated than that. To truly understand The Wealth of Nations, one must also read his complementary volume, The Theory of Moral Sentiments. Together, they provide the kind of far-reaching, inclusive economics celebrated in this book—an economics that takes other subjects seriously and embraces narrative explanations.

Don’t those two books contradict each other?
The idea that they do, and the question how the same author could have written them both, is often called “the Adam Smith problem.” In fact, the problem arises only when one misreads Smith. We offer a solution to the Adam Smith problem, which also shows how his thought looks forward to the great novelists to come.

You believe that narratives could teach economics a great deal. Is that why you argue that the humanities could be so useful in making economics more relevant?  How exactly does narrative help?
Stories are important, especially those told by the great realist novelists such as Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Chekhov, and Austen. They help in at least two ways. First, in a world where genuine contingency exists, it is necessary to explain events narratively, and there are no better models for narratives about people in society than those in great novels. Second, novels foster empathy. Other disciplines may recommend empathy, but only novels provide constant practice in it. When you read a great novel, you identify with characters, inhabit their thought processes from within, and so learn experientially what it is to be someone else—a person of a different culture, class, gender, or personality. In a great novel you inhabit many points of view, and experience how each appears to the others. In this way, great novels are a source of wisdom. They appreciate people as being inherently cultural while embracing ethics in all its irreducible complexity.

That doesn’t sound like the way English courses are currently taught or accord with the currently predominant premises of literary theory.
Quite so. We are stressing a particular version of the humanities, what we think of as “the best of the humanities.” In a variety of ways, the humanities have been false to their core mission, which may be why so many students are fleeing them. In addition to the dominant trends of literary theory, we have witnessed a series of “spoof” disciplines, which purport to be humanistic but are actually something else. Sociobiological criticism, digital humanities, and other such trends proceed as if literature were too old fashioned to matter, and one has to somehow restore its importance by linking it—how doesn’t matter much—to whatever is fashionable. They all too often dehumanize the humanities, reducing their value not just to economics but to other fields as well. We celebrate, and recommend economists consider, the humanities at their best.

Are there any particular subjects within economics where engagement with the “best” of the humanities would be especially worthwhile?
There is a wide range of areas covered in the book—from economic development, to the economics of higher education, to the economics of the family—for which we believe a genuine dialogue between the humanities and economics is useful. We offer case studies in each of these areas, with some unanticipated results. We don’t pretend to conclude that dialogue in our book; we instead seek to get it started in a serious way.

Where do you see the dialogue of the two cultures leading?
The point of a real dialogue is that it is open-ended, that you don’t know where it will lead. It is surprising, and that is what makes it both stimulating and creative.

Gary Saul Morson is the Lawrence B. Dumas Professor of the Arts and Humanities and professor of Slavic languages and literatures at Northwestern University. His many books include Narrative and Freedom, “Anna Karenina” in Our Time, and The Words of Others: From Quotations to Culture. Morton Schapiro is the president of Northwestern University and a professor of economics. His many books include The Student Aid Game. Morson and Schapiro are also the editors of The Fabulous Future?: America and the World in 2040.

Happy birthday to Henry David Thoreau

by Jeffrey Cramer

Cramer“You would find him well worth knowing.” These are the words Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow about “a man of thought and originality,” Henry David Thoreau.

July 12th marks the 200th anniversary of Thoreau’s birth in Concord, Massachusetts. Although at the time of his death in 1862 he was little more than a Ralph Waldo Emerson wannabe, today he is known around the world for his thoughtful writings on our place in the world. His writings on social reform inspired Tolstoy, Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., and protesters against the war in Vietnam. His natural history writings were a great impetus to John Muir, Rachel Carson, and Bill McKibben, and he is considered by many to be the father of the American environmental movement. His words in support of John Brown or against the Fugitive Slave Law are as courageous and as forthright as any written by our founding fathers. And as the man who “hears a different drummer” he has emboldened many readers to pursue their own unique paths with independence and confidence.

The world in which Thoreau lived was not so very different from ours. It was a time in which everything he believed and everything for which his country stood was being challenged. We live in hard times of a different character, when our country, when the world, is being divided politically, morally, and ethically. It is a time of deep personal reflection, deliberate and attentive questioning, and perhaps the most necessary thing of all, open dialogue and conversation. “We are all schoolmasters,” Thoreau wrote, showing us that we all have something to share. But he also said that we should “seek to be fellow students,” reminding us that we all have something to learn.

Thoreau can teach and inspire and antagonize and outrage, but ultimately give us something against which to try our own lives and that is what great writing offers the reader. In reading Thoreau we may not always find the answer to our questions, but we find the question. We may find words we agree with or we may find words we cannot agree with, in part or at all, but we do find a challenge to our complacency.

When George Eliot reviewed Walden, she said she would “Let Mr. Thoreau speak for himself.” Following Eliot’s advice, here are a few phrases in which Thoreau speaks for himself.

 

Nothing is so much to be feared but fear.

It costs us nothing to be just.

How insufficient is all wisdom without love.

What does education often do! It makes a straight-cut ditch of a free meandering brook.

I have sometimes heard a conversation beginning again when it should have ceased for lack of fuel.

A government which deliberately enacts injustice, and persists in it, will at length ever become the laughingstock of the world.

Any truth is better than make-believe.

 

 

Jack Zipes on The Sorcerer’s Apprentice

The Sorcerer’s ApprenticeZipes by Jack Zipes enlightens and entertains with enduring, spellbinding tales of sorcery. The title might conjure up images of Mickey Mouse from the Disney film Fantasia, or of Harry Potter. But as this anthology reveals, “sorcerer’s apprentice” tales—in which a young person rebels against, or complies with, an authority who holds the keys to magical powers—have been told through the centuries, in many languages and cultures, from classical times to today. This unique and beautifully illustrated book brings together more than fifty sorcerer’s apprentice stories by a plethora of writers, including Ovid, Sir Walter Scott, and the Brothers Grimm. Zipes recently took the time to answer a few questions about his latest book.

What prompted you to collect all the different “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” tales?

JZ: We are still living in the Dark Ages, and consequently, five years ago, I wanted to shed some light on what Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer have called the dialectic of the Enlightenment, and why reason has been obfuscated and overshadowed by superstition, religion, government, and corporate powers in so-called modern “enlightened” times. At one point in my research I came across various versions of “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” that contradicted the popular Disney tale with which I was most familiar. These were stories in which the apprentice defeated a sordid, power-hungry sorcerer and which showed how knowledge could be used for emancipation and enlightenment. From that point on, I could not stop collecting similar tales that are included in the present anthology.

Why are these tales so significant?

JZ: The “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” tales are highly significant because they present magic primarily as a stable value of transformation that allows for self-consciousness and self-fashioning. These unusual tales counter the defamation of magic by religion, science, and the state, and raise the question of the master/slave dialectic that challenges elites and the status quo. In this regard, I have framed this anthology of “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” tales to represent the two major strains of “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” tradition and their historical development. It begins with tales of “The Humiliated Apprentice,” followed by “The Rebellious Apprentice” stories and Krabat tales. The majority of the tales stem from “The Rebellious Apprentice” tale type. This larger number, compared to the smaller amount of “The Humiliated Apprentice” tale type, is not due to my prejudices but simply to the fact that I did not find as many “Humiliated Apprentice” tales in my vast research as I did “Rebellious Apprentice” tales. The disparity speaks for itself, for the rebellion of apprentices of all kinds is a constant in all societies and in all ages.

What is at the basis of the conflict between the sorcerer and his apprentice?

JZ: Our knowledge of ourselves and the world is attained through experiencing “slavery” and knowing what being in slavery entails. This means that we are all involved in what the philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, in Phenomenology of Spirit, calls a dialectical bloody battle to death that underlies all types of “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” tales. In most of the oral tales and many of the literary tales about sorcerer’s apprentices, the narrative perspective is what I call the “slave’s perspective,” a voice and view from below, no matter who the collector, mediator, or publisher of the tale may have been. This view is what makes the tales so striking. Though it may be difficult to explore and explain how people, defined and treated as slaves, contributed to the formation of culture from below, it can be done. The renowned American folklorist Richard Dorson drew important historical connections in his collection Negro Folktales in Michigan in dealing with American master/slave tales told by African-Americans. The“Sorcerer’s Apprentice” tales do not provide a solution to the master/slave conflict; they are not prescriptions or formulas for ending this conflict. What I have tried to demonstrate through collecting tales from various periods, and from different European, Asian, African, and American countries, is how these stories play out essential conflicts whose resolutions determine the nature of what it is to be human and humane.

Why do magic and magical transformation matter so much in people’s lives?

JZ: For a variety of reasons throughout the centuries, people have sought knowledge and power through magic. Tales about the desire for magic, which have evolved from words, fragments, and sentences, are not only wish-fulfillment tales but also blunt expressions of emotions that reveal what the people who tell, write, and listen to the tales lack, and what they want. Most people in the world believe in some kind of magic, whether religious or secular, and want to control “magic,” or “mana,” to escape enslavement and determine the path of their lives. According to the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, all people are stamped by what he calls our habitus—the beliefs, values and customs that mark and shape our thoughts, values, and behavior from birth. To know ourselves and to free ourselves, Bourdieu writes, we must continually confront masters, who, if they do not learn from their slaves, will ultimately have to die in order for the slaves to gain release and freedom.

In what way did Walt Disney warp the tradition of the rebellious apprentice?

JZ: People tend to believe that the ideal, if not definitive, version of “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” is the Disney cinematic and literary tale produced as part of the film Fantasia in 1940. This is a misconception, and our unquestioning acceptance of the Disney version, which reinforces notions of humiliation, has ramifications for the abusive way we treat children. In fact, the transformation of the ancient “Humiliated Apprentice” tales into a “charming” children’s tale is one of the ways in which mass-mediated and commodified children’s literature ideologically warps if not perverts folklore to induct children into authoritarian civilizing processes. On the other hand, the oral traditions of anonymous storytelling that favor the “Rebellious Apprentice” tales oppose the oppression of commodified tales. Stories, storytellers, and writers look for the most fitting and artistic modality they can find to articulate views about life and the world. In the formation of what I call a memetic tradition of folk-tale types and fairy tales, there has always been a communal expression of themes that formed tales relevant to be remembered. Many of the themes are connected to beliefs in magic and magical transformation. Indeed, the pursuit of magic often underlies the patterns of folk and fairy tales. In this regard, the themes found in the “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” tales are organically connected with the customs and beliefs of people who engendered them, and they form never-ending cultural traditions of resistance to the domination of magicians who misuse power. This unique collection of “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” tales sheds light on how young people have rebelled against the oppression and domination of magicians who use magic to control and exploit apprentices. The long history of the“Sorcerer’s Apprentice” tales that date back to Greco-Roman times reflects how rebellion is key to understanding the relevance of the tales which expose the contradictions in the popularity of the Disney commodified version.

Jack Zipes is the editor and translator of The Original Folk and Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm. He is professor emeritus of German and comparative literature at the University of Minnesota. Natalie Frank is an American artist currently living and working in New York City. Her work is held in multiple museum collections, including the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Brooklyn Museum. They are the author and illustrator of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice: An Anthology of Magical Tales.

Browse Our Literature 2017 Catalog

The highlights in our Literature 2017 catalog include a fascinating analysis of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice fairy tale by Jack Zipes, a major history of French literature, and the final volume in Reiner Stach’s definitive biography of Kafka. #MLA17 is coming up on January 5th, so make sure to stop by our booth and check out some of these books in person. Browse the full catalog below:

Today the story of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice is best-known from the classic sequence in Disney’s Fantasia in which Mickey Mouse, tired of lugging heavy buckets of water, enlists magical help to complete his chores but finds the situation rapidly spiraling out of control. But did you know that variations on this tale have been told in countless cultures across the centuries? Fairy tale scholar Jack Zipes collects over seventy versions of the story in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, written by authors ranging from Ovid to the Brothers Grimm.

The Sorcerer's Apprentice - Jack Zipes

For A History of Modern French Literature, Christopher Prendergast marshals a team of over thirty leading scholars to produce an accessible yet thorough study of French literature from the sixteenth century to the modern day. From Rabelais to Beckett and beyond, every facet of French literature is covered in this compendium.

A History of Modern French Literature, edited by Christopher Prendergast

Kafka: The Early Years completes Reiner Stach’s monumental biography. Drawing on a plethora of sources, many unpublished, Stach draws an unparalleled picture of Kafka’s youth, and the nineteenth-century city of Prague in which he was raised. This is a probing study of the formative events in the life of one of literature’s most psychologically profound writers.

Kafka: The Early Years, by Reiner Stach

Find these new titles and many more in our Literature 2017 catalog.

Eléna Rivera on her new collection, Scaffolding

RiveraEléna Rivera’s new collection of poems, Scaffolding, is a sequence of eighty-two sonnets written over the course of a year, dated and arranged in roughly chronological order. The work vividly reflects life in New York City, where Rivera resides. A poet and translator, Rivera’s earlier collections include The Perforated Map; her translation of Bernard Noël’s The Rest of the Voyage won the Robert Fagles Translation Prize. Recently, Rivera answered some questions about her book, the interplay between form and content, and the life that informs her writing.


Why the sonnet?

ER: I’ve always been interested in form, the interplay between form and content, between the inner and the outer. I wanted to experience what it would be like to write discreet poems over time. I had been engaged with writing long poems for a while. I’d work on a piece, playing with different possibilities, until the form would come to me and I knew then that the poem had found its direction (the amount of time I have, and the concerns of the poem, are what dictate the poem’s length). I was interested in the book as form (a love of the epic) and made one-of-a-kind books, and books in hand-letterpress editions (fascinated by the weight of the single lead letter). At first the sonnet seemed the complete opposite of what I had been doing, but really it wasn’t that different, the form got smaller, tighter, and I filled it rather than found it; it shaped the conversation, the music of it. I really became fascinated by the fourteen-line form, what such a compact container could give rise to, and once I committed myself to it I felt compelled to continue.

And why the additional eleven-syllable line constraint?

ER: At the time I was translating a book from the French written in hendecasyllable lines. I wondered if writing in lines of eleven-syllables would be as difficult as translating them. I wrote a few sonnets in eleven-syllable lines, enjoyed the constraint, and found it much easier than translating into eleven-syllables lines. Of course we don’t usually count syllables in English, but I found this constraint useful, gave the poems more breadth. I was inspired by Bernard Noël’s example, and translating him, as I was by the experiments of the Oulipo writers in France, like Jacques Roubaud for example. I liked too that the eleven-syllables veered away from the pentameter line we’re so used to hearing; it added unaccountable rhythms below the surface of the lines. I read sonnets, conversed with sonnets, responded to what was on my mind on any given day, and would then shape the poems into these eleven-syllables lines.

Is that why your sonnets are dated?

ER: Yes. After the first few sonnets, I gave myself the task to write a sonnet a day for a year. Needless to say that didn’t quite work out the way I imagined it would because of time constraints mostly. I also threw out many very bad sonnets, which diminished their numbers. It’s when I began revising that I also realized that I had to change the date of a poem and add a new date, to show that a poem might have been written on one day and much later rewritten on another day. Some poems just worked right away and others were more reluctant. Sometimes I liked the new version as much as the old one and kept both. I wanted to track that; I wanted it to be a book of sonnets that showed what was on my mind on a particular day, what I was reading, thinking, in touch with, remembering, etc.

I noticed that you include a spattering of words in French and Spanish, why is that?

ER: I grew up speaking French and Spanish. I had some knowledge of English, but for me English is a learned language not the one we spoke at home. My mother spoke to us in Spanish and some French, and we spoke to our parents in French (I was in French schools from the time I was three). So I consider French and Spanish my “mother-tongues.” I learned English quite quickly once we moved to the United State, and worked hard at it (the kids in my public Junior High School were unforgiving regarding my strange accent).

So how did it happen that you grew up speaking French and Spanish?

ER: My parents met while working in the Hispanic Division of the Library of Congress. My mother wanted to travel, and in her family there had always been an element of yearning for Spain, where she was born (lots of stories around that). My father is American and half-Mexican from New Orleans, and my mother is Spanish and German. Her father, a Botanist, was a refugee from Franco’s government during the Spanish Civil War, and had to flee the country. My mother grew up in South America, fleeing countries as dictatorships rose. Later after my parents married, they moved to Mexico where I was born, and three years later moved to France. My mother was eager to go to Europe and my father, who wrote poetry, and had written a thesis on Rimbaud, was easily convinced. They led quite the bohemian life of expatriates in Paris in the ’60s and ’70s. There were also all the political events, the marches and protests, and getting locked in the Sorbonne in 1968. All their friends were musicians, painters, writers. I grew up in museums, galleries, listening to a lot of jazz. We moved to New York when I was 13, and that’s when I experienced the shock of the violence in America, the racial hatred that was all around me. I didn’t understand it, but the violence of the country really marked me, and enters my poems. After my parents separated, we left New York City and lived in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Muir Beach in Northern California. It was only much later in my 30s when Russell and I moved to Montréal that I started to incorporate some French into my poems — Montréal being a bilingual city. I had written poems and other pieces in French, but never tried to publish them. I’ve gone back to France at various periods of my life, one time for as long as two years, and now in the last 10 years I’ve been translating and working with French poets, and so the French is reentering. I’d like to do more with the two languages, and Spanish, too. I miss the languages; they are an integral part of my being. Sometimes I just can’t think of the word in English, and the word in French or Spanish will emerge — so much more expressive of the emotion or thought than the English word.

Do you think of yourself as European or French then?

ER: No, not anymore. I don’t think of myself as belonging to one particular country. I am in the place I’m in; that’s it, and I write from that place. Susan Howe said in an interview, “Trust the place to form the voice,” and the poems in Scaffolding are very much New York poems.

About the title, Scaffolding, could you elaborate a bit more about that?

ER: When I wrote the poems, our building complex was undergoing extensive facade work. The place was covered in scaffolding for about a four-year period — a long time. It wasn’t until I finished the manuscript that I began thinking of Scaffolding as a title. The sonnet form is a kind of “scaffolding,” a structure, for the substance and sounds of the poem, as is the hendecasyllable line. I also like the darker meaning of the word, “an elevated platform on which a criminal is executed;” there was something that felt dangerous about these poems, about what I was doing.

Why poetry?

ER: That’s complicated. Many reasons. It’s my vocation. I write poems. I’m always writing (poems and prose). From a very young age, I wrote, painted, put on plays, and sang. When we moved to America, I wanted to be an actress. I kept writing, but I didn’t think of writing as something one made one’s life around, not until my late 20s. My relationship to English is very complicated. Writing and reading are very physical endeavors for me — when I read I get so excited, I want to meet it, to be there in the language with it. Writing was always a necessity that helped me to live in the world. Writing was a way out of erasure, the silence that is imposed from the outside. In writing and reading, I found the words that I didn’t have otherwise. And then there is another kind of silence, one that sets one free, but for that one has to be able to speak, beyond categories, beyond the idea of “self,” beyond any kind of fixed and permanent “I” (that illusion).

Eléna Rivera is a poet and a translator. Her poems have appeared in publications such as the Nation, Denver Quarterly, the New York Times and many others. She is the author of The Perforated Map and Unknowne Land. Her  ranslation of Bernard Noël’s The Rest of the Voyage won the Robert Fagles Translation Prize. Rivera was born in Mexico City and spent her childhood in Paris. She currently resides in New York City.

Mark Williams: A look at Irish gods and their legacy

WilliamsAgeless fairies inspired J.R.R. Tolkien’s immortal elves; W. B. Yeats invoked Irish divinities to reimagine the national condition. Why have Ireland’s mythical beings loomed so large in the world’s imagination? In Ireland’s Immortals: A History of the Gods of Irish Myth, Mark Williams weaves together the fascinating stories of some of Ireland’s famous gods and goddesses, from the heroic Lug to the fire goddess Brigit. He explores the religious history in the myths, showing how Ireland’s pagan divinities were transformed into literary characters in the medieval Christian era. Recently, Williams took the time to answer some questions about Irish gods and their stories.


Apparently Ireland has a pantheon of native gods?!

MW: Yes! — though in many ways they are unique, and don’t look all that much like the pantheons of other peoples and places. They’re called the Túatha Dé Danann in Irish, or ‘The Peoples of the Goddess Danu,’ as it’s usually translated. They tend to be imagined as immortal, beautiful aristocrats, sumptuously dressed and eternally young. In many stories from medieval Ireland, they live in a kind of parallel world, which can be accessed via the hills and Neolithic passage-graves which dot the Irish landscape. Some of them have vivid personalities: there’s the Morrígan, a battle-goddess who sometimes takes the form of a crow, for instance, or the young and heroic god Lug of the Long Arm. My favorite is Brigit, the goddess of poetry, medicine and blacksmithing who also moonlights as Ireland’s most important female saint — or at least has been thought to.

What is unusual about the Irish gods?

MW: Across Irish literature, in both Irish and English, their major characteristic is ontological ambiguity: the nature of their nature, so to speak, is never wholly fixed. In the first place, it’s hard to simply identify them as gods, as they have only an uncertain and wavering link to the actual deities worshiped by the pre-Christian Irish. Ireland’s conversion to Christianity saw the jettisoning of the vast majority of deities the Irish had once worshiped, while a small number were ‘reincarnated’ as medieval literary characters. This latter process was in no way inevitable, and the Anglo-Saxons did nothing of the sort, for example: you don’t find versions of Woden and Thunor turning up as literary characters in secular story, whereas the Irish constantly worked former gods into their sagas and tales, often worrying about how to place them in a Christian cosmos. Serious suggestions included the idea that they were merciful angels, ‘half-fallen’ angels, demons, or a race of humans who had somehow escaped the Fall and so retained more-than-human powers.

That the old gods were remembered at all was down to the deep respect for the past, which was characteristic of the medieval Irish. The Anglo-Saxons knew that they had arrived from somewhere else in the relatively recent past, but the Irish — around the conversion period, at least — seem to have thought themselves to be indigenous to their land. They were deeply invested in their own nativeness, so that their landscape, culture, and ancestry were all bound up together. (A new story was developed later which asserted that they hailed from Scythia, via Spain). But literature and shaping of a literate culture were in the hands of a clerical intelligentsia, who felt perfectly at liberty to make major changes in the depiction of ancient, once-divine figures. It is very striking how much the multi-talented god Lug (or Lugh) resembles the biblical King David, for example — both are young, handsome, royal figures, both are skilled musicians and poets, and both kill a giant with a slingshot to the head in single combat. Though there is no question that a god named Lug (or Lugus) was part of Irish paganism, one wonders how much of his ancient character actually persists in the literary Lug. This kind of remodeling might have happened to any number of the divine figures in Irish literature; far from representing the ignorant interference of clerics in ancient traditions, it actually reflects an attitude of deep respect on their part, and underscores their investment in the patterns and personages of their island’s ancient past.

The second peculiarity about the gods is that they are often depicted as ‘fairies’ — the not very satisfactory English term for the Irish áes síde, ‘the people of the hollow hills’. It is the second of these two Irish words which was later anglicised as Shee — a term familiar to all aficionados of nineteenth-century Irish literature. Rather than being gods, in this guise they act as humanity’s idealized twin-race. They are beautiful, immortal, and gifted with magic powers, and their lifestyle is largely characterized by graceful ease. In many ways they are the forerunner of Tolkien’s Elves, but they are less solemn and remote. In this guise they balloon in number: they become an imagined people, not a pantheon.

The third factor is that towards the end of the first millennium AD the Irish developed a complex backstory for their island, and a place for the Túatha Dé Danann was found within this elaborate timeline. They were now imagined as only one of a series of invading races who had ruled Ireland in the deep past. The climax of this kind of ‘synthetic history’ (as it is known) came in the late eleventh century, with the creation of ‘The Book of Invasions.’ In this schema, the gods were imagined as human beings who had simply learned how to supercharge their abilities with magical knowledge. They were (the synthetic history tells us) the third or fourth race to rule over Ireland, before they were in turn defeated by the incoming Gaels, the ethnic Irish. This scenario is transparently a creation of the high Middle Ages, but it became the basic imaginative frame for Ireland’s native gods until the nineteenth century.

The upshot of all these variations on the ontology of the Túatha Dé Danann was that it was actually quite difficult for antiquarian writers in modernity — as they combed through the records of the Irish past —to spot that these literary figures had once been Ireland’s native gods. Considerable preparation of the intellectual ground was necessary, and here the newly developed scholarly disciplines of anthropology, philology, and comparative mythology all played important roles. It wasn’t until the 1870s that the idea really took off, and soon it became a cultural and scholarly commonplace.

Why are the Irish gods less famous than the Graeco-Roman and Norse gods?

MW: The classical gods were the divinities of two cultures which were deeply admired by later ages, and were inseparable from the literature of those cultures; the gods of Greece and Rome therefore became part of the universal intellectual and imaginative patrimony of Europe. In the Middle Ages and on into the Early Modern era, Christian intellectuals felt perfectly at liberty to adopt them as symbols, personifications, allegories, and rhetorical tropes. (Dante calls on Apollo, for example, right at the heart of the greatest Christian poem of the Middle Ages). And later, with the Romantic movement, the impulse emerged to take the classical gods down from their niches in literary rhetoric and reclaim them as images of divine power in the natural world, even as living spiritual forces. So the gods of Greece and Rome have never actually been away, and have been naturalized for centuries in literature in English.

It’s worth noting, however, that the classical gods had no specifically national dimension, precisely because they were so universal. The Norse gods were quite different. Like the Irish gods, they were associated with a vernacular northern European language and had starring roles in a splendid medieval literature. In modernity, they could be claimed as the ‘native’ gods of those areas of Europe in which a Germanic language was spoken. This meant Germany, of course, but also — because of the Anglo-Saxon heritage — England, which gave the Norse gods a ready-made audience and a role as the ‘divine machinery’ in many forms of quasi-nationalist creative expression. The classic example is Wagner, whose monumental Der Ring des Nibelungen brought the Northern pantheon to international attention as a family of archetypal figures on a cosmic scale, explicitly paralleled to the gods of Greece. The Gaelic gods, in contrast, were associated only with Ireland and with the poorest and most remote parts of Scotland, and so seemed vague and outlandish in comparison.

Why did someone like W. B. Yeats take an interest?

MW: Yeats, and his friend the mystic George Russell, are really the essential figures in the late nineteenth century recovery of the Irish gods, though they had important precursors. Yeats was well-placed to take advantage of the new scholarship which had retrieved the Túatha Dé Danann as Ireland’s native pantheon. In his early-career siftings of material, he was able to boldly assert the fundamental identity of the fairies of folklore, the Túatha Dé Danann of the medieval literature, and the gods of the ancient Irish. Here the occult acted as a crucial unifying frame; Yeats was deeply invested in occultism as a system of thought, and he used it to give meaning and context to the Irish pantheon. To use anachronistic language, he came to believe, around the turn of the century, that the native gods were the archetypes of the national

unconscious, and that it might be possible to retrieve and reactivate them, creating a system of hermetic ‘images’ with which to reimagine the national condition. To this end he attempted to establish the so-called ‘Celtic Mysteries’ — a hermetic order on specifically national lines which would invoke and stir into life these figures from the depths of the national psyche, persuading them to intervene in a conflicted present. He certainly didn’t succeed in the way that he expected, but—more than a hundred years later—more people have heard of Lug, and Danu, and Brigit than ever before, and indeed the Irish gods are the focus of several forms of renewed and reimagined modern Paganism. So who knows? They are certainly alive now.

Is Ireland’s Immortals meant to be funny?

MW: In places, yes, I hope so; the material seemed to demand it, but in two different ways. On one level, the ferocious weirdness of some of the medieval tales can be laugh-out-loud funny in a way that must have been intentional on the part of the saga-authors. My colleague at Oxford, Heather O’Donoghue — who’s written a wonderful history of Norse mythology — has remarked that myth tends to be the most surreal manifestation of a given culture, and I’ve tried to bring this dimension of the literature out. I dwell, for example, on a scene in a ninth-century saga in which the Dagda, the Falstaffian ‘great father’ of the Irish gods — the rough equivalent of Zeus — takes a very long time to relieve his bowels, before being spanked by a woman he is trying to seduce.

On another level, some of the activities of those involved in the gods’ retrieval in modernity — especially in what might be called the late-Victorian New Age — can’t help but raise a smile in a more cynical era. To me it’s fascinating that a connection can be traced between major political movements that affected the fate of nations on the one hand, and the activities of a clique of irrationalizing intellectuals, fired up by some pretty way-out ideas, on the other. That aspect of things seemed to demand a certain respectful wryness, because the idea of ritually awakening the archetypes of the national unconscious is an astonishing and beautiful one, even if the actual execution could be a bit bonkers. The only such person whom I couldn’t write about respectfully — to start with — was William Sharp, the Scottish writer who posed as a Hebridean seeress he named ‘Fiona Macleod.’ He was a plus-fours wearing six-footer with a big, red face, but he wrote all his most successful ‘Celtic’ work in the guise of this wafty, Enya-like figure. He probably reminds me a bit too closely of my own naïve, teenage forays into things Celtic — all mist-shrouded dolmens and dangly druidical tat — and the act of self-exorcism led me to be unfair to Sharp. I was taken to task — quite rightly — for being too nasty by one of the referees of the book, and in revisions I hope I’ve been more even-handed.

Finally, I have to say that writing about Liam O’Flaherty’s 1930 story The Ecstasy of Angus — a steamy bit of erotica involving the hot-to-trot goddess Fand and the love-god Angus Óg — was an absolute hoot. As the couple get down to it, O’Flaherty actually brings on a chorus of fairies who prance about brandishing dildos. It was impossible to analyze with a straight face, though I hope I’ve made the case that the story does have a dark, politically serious dimension to it.

Why did you write the book, and what influenced it?

MW: I had various aims in mind. First, there was a gap in the scholarship: there was no up-to-date guide to the gods in medieval Irish literature, nor to their recuperation in the modern era. In the two parts of the book I’ve tried to tell both stories in a way that makes one dimension illuminate the other. I’d always wanted to do the project: my undergraduate training was in Classics and English, so I cut my intellectual teeth on reception history, meaning the afterlife and reworking of classical texts by later writers. So we would look, for example, at Milton’s reuse of Virgil and Homer, or at Shakespeare’s allusions to Ovid, or at the links between the end of the tradition of epic poetry and the genesis of the novel. One of the things this gave me was a predisposition to read culture in terms of wholeness and continuity, rather than fracture and disjointedness. But the relationship between Irish literature in English and medieval Irish literature is very different to that between later literature and that of Graeco-Roman antiquity. With the Irish material, ‘reception’ of this sort is problematic because everything is charged with the legacy of a contested and traumatic colonial history, so my impulse towards wholeness needed considerable modification. In 1981 Richard Jenkyns — later to be my Oxford tutor — wrote a splendid book called The Victorians and Ancient Greece, which I actually read at school, and that was a big influence: Part Two could have been subtitled ‘The Victorians and Ancient Ireland.’ Another big influence was the Norse expert Heather O’Donoghue, as — of course — were the works of Roy Foster: one of the greatest pleasures of the process was getting to know him. The biggest influence of all is Ronald Hutton of the University of Bristol. I read his The Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles when I was seventeen, and Part One of the book is in one sense a vast expansion of his chapter in that book on the Celts, ‘The People of the Mist.’ He has also written an elegant few pages about Yeats’s and Russell’s astral adventures in his book The Triumph of the Moon, and Part Two of Ireland’s Immortals handles the same material at book length.

One thing I hope for the book is that it might have the effect of freeing things up a bit for younger scholars in Celtic. Celtic Studies as an academic discipline emerged from various kinds of Romantic nationalism in the nineteenth century, and the legacy of that origin is only now really being assessed by scholars — we’re starting to get superb biographical studies of major figures, for example. But the most obvious consequence has been a massive counter-reaction in scholarship against anything woolly or mystical: Celtic Studies has evolved into a hard-headed and rather inward-looking discipline, focused on the production of critical editions and the analysis of the languages. Unfortunately, the field is currently undergoing a period of contraction: there are fewer places in the world where the languages are taught, and important Professorships—including that at my own institution—are under threat. I hope one thing the book might do is to say, look, as Celticists we can reach out, we can talk to colleagues in English and in intellectual history. People who work on Irish literature in English and those who work on literature in Irish hardly ever seem to talk to one another, with a few noble exceptions such as Declan Kiberd. I hope that one thing the book will do is to underline that there is genuine value in seeing the bigger picture from time to time. (That said — lest any colleagues reading this think me to be encouraging a hermeneutic free-for-all — I must say to any student Celticists out there: make sure you learn your paradigms.) But the literature — extraordinary, uncanny, and beautiful as it is — will languish in neglect until we get in the habit of claiming for ourselves significance and status.

Mark Williams teaches medieval Irish, Welsh and English literature at Lincoln College, University of Oxford, where he is the June Li Fellow in the Humanities and Tutor in English. He has also taught for Cambridge University’s Department of of Anglo-Saxon, Norse, & Celtic. Williams is the author of Fiery Shapes: Celestial Portents and Astrology in Ireland and Wales, 700–1700.

Reiner Stach explores neglected period of Kafka’s life in crowning volume

The culmination of two decades of work, Reiner Stach’s three-part, masterful biography of Franz Kafka, one of the 20th century’s most fascinating and mysterious writers, is now complete. Kafka: The Early Years joins Kafka: The Decisive Years and Kafka: The Years of Insight, offering an unmatched account of how a boy who grew up in an old Central European monarchy helped create modern literature. The book makes use of previously untapped sources, including including family letters, schoolmates’ memoirs, and early diaries of Kafka’s close friend Max Brod.

High praise for the previous volumes from John Banville, New York Review of Books:

“This is one of the great literary biographies, to be set up there with, or perhaps placed on an even higher shelf than, Richard Ellmann’s James Joyce, George Painter’s Marcel Proust, and Leon Edel’s Henry James. . . . [A]n eerily immediate portrait of one of literature’s most enduring and enigmatic masters.”

Check out the trailer for the complete three-volume biography here:

Reiner Stach worked extensively on the definitive edition of Kafka’s collected works before embarking on his three-volume biography of the writer. Shelley Frisch’s translations of those volumes were awarded the Modern Language Association’s Aldo and Jeanne Scaglione Prize and the Helen and Kurt Wolff Translator’s Prize.

Gods or Fighting Men?

Ireland's Immortals by Mark Williams“…the Dagda, with his overflowing cauldron, Lug, with his spear dipped in poppy juice lest it rush forth hot to battle, Aengus, with his three birds on his shoulder, Bodb and his red swineherd, and all the heroic children of Dana…”
—W. B. Yeats, “Rosa Alchemica”

The style of Yeats’s recitation will be immediately familiar to anyone who has read the myths and legends of Ireland, with their richly allusive lists of characters and the extraordinary deeds for which they are known. But what do we actually know of Tuatha Dé Danann (the Peoples of the goddess Danann), of the Sidhe, of the Fianna? And how were the Tuatha Dé understood by the pre-Christian Irish? As gods? Or as something different? The tales in which they appear come down to us in the form of manuscripts written centuries after the tales were first composed. Moreover, these manuscripts were made by monks, whose fervent Christian understanding of the world must surely have colored their view of these pagan figures. Some stories come to us in multiple, widely varying versions, or are frustratingly incomplete. Others must be inferred from entries in monastic glossaries, or from the dindshenchas, the traditional lore of Irish placenames.

In Ireland’s Immortals, Mark Williams describes the efforts of succeeding generations to frame and define the mythic figures of ancient Ireland. The monastic writers struggled to explain the superhuman feats of the Tuatha Dé and their frequent transformations of physical form without ascribing them some measure of divinity. The writers of the Celtic Revival brought their own agenda. Yeats’s fascination with ritual magic led him to attempt to found an Order of Celtic Mysteries (p.332), modeled on the hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, with figures such as Lug, Manannán and Brigit as the focus of its rituals. His friend and fellow poet and artist AE (George Russell) was one of several writers who instead saw them as aspects of the gods of Hindu mythology, under the influence of the Theosophical teachings of Madame Blavatsky. The Scottish writer William Sharp developed the fictional persona of Hebridean folklorist and revealer of mysteries Fiona Macleod to express his blend of pagan and Christian mysticism. So successful were Fiona Macleod’s dewy evocations of druids giving tribute to the ancient gods that she received extensive fan mail and even an offer of marriage. Sharp had his sister answer the letters for fear that his masculine handwriting might give the game away (p.372.)

In this ongoing process of reinterpretation and reframing, the errors, conjectures and creations of one generation became part of the corpus of accepted knowledge for the next. Manannán mac Lir is a well-attested figure in the myths and legends, usually associated with the sea. It must have seemed reasonable, given that “mac” means “son of” in Irish, to suppose the existence of a sea god, Lir, as his father and Lir starts to appear in manuscripts from the thirteenth century onwards. By the nineteenth century, AE was depicting Lir as no less than the primordial infinite from which the universe emerged. Yet the absence of Lir from the earliest sources strongly suggests that he is a back-formation who would have been unknown to the early Irish. To add to the confusion, an unrelated Lir appears in the story of the Children of Lir, in which a stepmother’s curse transforms King Lir’s four children into swans. The story is evidently of Christian origin as, after nine hundred years, it is the tolling of a church bell that finally returns the children to human form (terribly aged, they survive only long enough to receive baptism.) Yet some identify the two Lirs, exemplifying the confusion and contradictions that surround Ireland’s immortals. Mark Williams is a fascinating guide to their long life and presence in the literature and culture of Ireland.

Banned Books Week: Remembering David Tod Roy & The Plum in the Golden Vase

Over the course of history and across cultures, books have been banned for various reasons: religious and political, sexual and social. From the Princeton University Press archives, perhaps none is more remarkable than The Plum in the Golden Vase or, Chin P’ing Mei. Equally remarkable is the book’s translator: Crowning nearly 50 years of scholarship, the late David Tod Roy published the fifth and final volume of his masterful translation of this ‘banned book’ in 2013, and I had the pleasure of working as his publicist. The culmination of this project marked the pinnacle of David’s career, one that too sadly coincided with his diagnosis with Lou Gehrig’s disease. In spite of his physical decline, David was wonderfully engaged and engaging during the months following the book’s publication, as interview requests poured in from The New York Times and beyond. He spoke thoughtfully about his lifelong love of Chinese literature, his adventurous youth as the child of Presbyterian missionaries in China, and what exactly led him to open up The Plum in the Golden Vase for the first time (Hint: it’s a pretty racy read).

Written anonymously, the late sixteenth-century novel that became Roy’s lifelong work is a jewel of Ming-era Chinese literature, presenting an impressively detailed picture of daily Chinese life. Famous for its unprecedented eroticism, the book was described by David Marche in the LA Review of Books as “Jane Austen meets hard-core pornography.” It will come as no surprise that the book was long banned, restricted to high officials in the Chinese government, had its erotic content edited out, or replaced with Latin. The interviews David Roy did about the book before his recent death, this one for the Tableau, touch on its history of censorship:

The Chin P’ing Mei has been banned by various Chinese governments ever since it first appeared, including that of Mao Zedong. Interestingly, Mao’s diary indicated that he was an avid fan of the novel and thought it was a profound work, but he didn’t want his citizens to read it. One edition was published under Mao’s aegis, but it was restricted only to upper levels of the Communist party.

Though the novel is about more than sex—it is also considered significant for its absence of mythical heroes, attention to female psychology, and depiction of everyday life—the level of eroticism in the book has been surprising even to modern day readers. On the occasion of the release of Roy’s translation, the New York Times wrote:

“When I taught it, my students were flabbergasted, even though they knew about the novel’s reputation,” said Patricia Sieber, a professor of Chinese literature at Ohio State University. “S-and-M, the use of unusual objects as sex toys, excessive use of aphrodisiacs, sex under all kinds of nefarious circumstances — you name it, it’s all there.”

The book’s pornographic reputation attracted a teenage Roy, but his translation, a three-decade project, reflects a lifelong fascination with Chinese literature and is celebrated today for its exhaustive research that includes 4,400 endnotes. Its publication in 2013 marked a major personal achievement for Roy and a historic publishing event for PUP. As for the book’s availability in modern China, Roy said:

Now the book is available, but it’s not always easy to obtain. Since Mao’s death there has been a flood of scholarship in Chinese on the Chin P’ing Mei; there is even a periodical on Chin P’ing Mei studies. I’ve drawn heavily on that material, but I’ve actually discovered quite a few sources that haven’t been identified yet by Chinese scholars.

You can read more about The Plum in the Golden Vase here, and more about the book’s illustrations on our design Tumblr.

A University of Chicago memorial service will be held for David Tod Roy in October.

Plum

Celebrate National Poetry Month with Poem in Your Pocket Day

Small-Blue-RGB-National-Poetry-Month-LogoNational Poetry Month is in full swing, and April 21st is designated  Poem in Your Pocket Day. Celebrated across the country, the “pocket poem” is a simple reminder of how powerful and overlooked poetry can be. Spread poetry in classrooms, libraries, offices, or wherever you happen to be by printing out either an old personal favorite or a poem you’ve newly discovered. You can share your choice on Twitter using the popular hashtag #pocketpoem.

Although Poem in Your Pocket Day was founded by the office of the mayor in New York City in 2002, it quickly gained national momentum. You can find more information about the event at poets.org, which features news, updates, and additional programs that are taking place throughout April.

To promote and celebrate Poem in Your Pocket Day, Princeton University Press is pleased to present a selection of six printable PUP poem cards you can take with you throughout your day.

Jollimore poetry card On Birdsong

Troy Jollimore is the author of two previous collections of poetry, At Lake Scugog (Princeton) and Tom Thomson in Purgatory, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award. His poems have appeared in the New Yorker, McSweeney’s, the Believer, and other publications. He is a professor of philosophy at California State University, Chico.

Feinman poetry card The Way to Remember Her

Alvin Feinman (1929-2008) taught literature at Bennington College from 1969 to 1994. He was the author of Preambles and Other Poems and an expanded edition of that work, Poems (Princeton). He was born in Brooklyn, New York, and educated at Brooklyn College, the University of Chicago, and Yale University.

Greenbaum poetry card The Two Yvonnes

Jessica Greenbaum’s second book, The Two Yvonnes (2012), was chosen by Paul Muldoon for Princeton’s Series of Contemporary Poets. She teaches inside and outside academia, and as a social worker she designs workshops for nonconventional communities. She received a 2015 Creative Writing Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, is the poetry editor for upstreet, and lives in Brooklyn.

poetry_cards_Carelli

Anthony Carelli’s poems have appeared in various magazines including The New Yorker, Columbia, and Commonweal, and on various websites including theparisreview.org, AGNI online, and Memorious. His first book, Carnations (Princeton University Press, 2011) was a finalist for the 2011 Levis Reading Prize. Recipient of a Hodder fellowship and a Whiting Writers’ Award, he currently lives in Brooklyn, New York and teaches at New York University.

Whitehead poetry card A Glossary of Chickens

Gary J. Whitehead’s third collection of poems, A Glossary of Chickens, was published by Princeton University Press in 2013. His previous books include Measuring Cubits while the Thunder Claps and The Velocity of Dust. He has also authored three chapbooks of poetry, two of which were winners of national competitions. His writing awards include, among others, a New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship, the Pearl Hogrefe Fellowship at Iowa State University, and the PEN Northwest Margery Davis Boyden Wilderness Writing Residency Award. His poems have appeared widely, most notably in The New Yorker.
Smith poetry card The Key in the Stone
Austin Smith has published four poetry collections: In the Silence of the Migrated Birds; Wheat and Distance; Instructions for How to Put an Old Horse Down; and Almanac, which was chosen by Paul Muldoon for the Princeton Series of Contemporary Poets. Austin’s poems have appeared in The New Yorker, Poetry Magazine, Yale Review, and Sewanee Review, amongst others. He was the recipient of the 2015 Narrative Prize for his short story, “The Halverson Brothers.”
poetry_cards_Sze-Lorrain (1)
Fiona Sze-Lorrain is a poet, literary translator, editor, and zheng harpist. The author of three previous books of poetry in English, My Funeral Gondola, Water the Moon, and The Ruined Elegance, she also writes and translates in French and Chinese. She lives in Paris.