Editor Ben Tate on his trip to Hay Festival

It’s the mother of all literary festivals, and since its establishment in the late 1980s virtually every living writer of consequence has attended. It was here that the late Christopher Hitchens promoted, in turn, both his atheist manifesto as well as his memoir, and it was here that Margaret Atwood appeared just last year for an extended discussion of A Handmaid’s Tale. In 2004 John Updike, before presenting one of his last novels, insisted upon arriving by train ‘because they don’t have trains in Massachusetts’, and famously, and rather awkwardly, Paul Theroux and V.S. Naipaul were reunited here in 2011 after their long estrangement. It was in 2000 that Gore Vidal made one of his last truly robust public appearances, amusing audiences with his impressions of Ronald Reagan and Spiro Agnew; and Bill Clinton, after peddling his own book here in 2001, referred to it as ‘the Woodstock of the Mind’, though he was thinking more of upstate New York than of West Oxfordshire. This is, of course, the Hay Festival, staged every May in the Welsh market town of Hay-on-Wye, which is perched along the River Wye, and not too far from the southern extension of Offa’s Dyke, the Anglo-Saxon earth wall which more or less demarcates England from Wales. But it’s not for the stunning countryside that the festival is held here. For many bibliophiles, Hay-on-Wye is the very centre of the known universe: it’s the ‘town of books’ for a reason, as there are more than 30 used bookshops tucked into its narrow streets. And it’s such a relatively small place that one could conclude a ratio of one bookshop for every resident.

I had made pilgrimages to the town in the past, primarily to buy books I never intended to read with money I never really had. Last month, however, I visited the actual festival for the first time. And what a spectacle. Although until a few years ago the festival was held literally in the town, it is now of such a magnitude that it’s staged in an open field on the outskirts, in what is really a self-contained city of tents and marquees, with two bookshops on the site and a food hall of overwhelming variety and quality. I was there with a purpose, specifically to see our author Marion Turner, whose new book, Chaucer: A European Life, has been acclaimed as nothing less than a literary milestone. It’s a biography which situates Chaucer within the broadest cultural, political, social, and intellectual context, and by predicating the narrative upon the places in which Chaucer is known to have lived and travelled the author has rendered the subject’s life and work into a tangibly concrete and complicated reality. With helpful instruction from our publicist Katie Lewis, herself an expert hand at Hay, my wife Ginny and I made our way to the festival green room, where we found Katie and author in mid-conversation, and mid-prosecco, just about an hour or so before the early afternoon event. The green room was exactly what one would want it to be. Cake, bubbly and coffee were in generous and complimentary supply, as were various British cultural celebrities: Jeanette Winterson was there chatting with friends before her event; Bettany Hughes, the popular ancient historian, breezed through on her way to a panel on reconciliation in time of conflict; BBC lion Melvyn Bragg was holding court, because he’s Melvyn Bragg and this is the sort of thing he does; and finally there was Stephen Fry, whose presence exerted a kind of gravitational pull on the rest of the room. I had to remind myself that I first knew him as Jeeves more than twenty-five years ago.

Marion was whisked away by a festival official for a debriefing, and then after a quick lunch Katie, my wife and I walked over to Llwyfan Cymru (Wales Stage) for the sold-out event. 800 people crammed under the marquee to hear Marion discuss the book with Jerry Brotton, a professor of Renaissance studies Queen Mary. Brotton was the perfect interlocutor: he never imposed himself upon the proceedings, and his questions were posed just frequently enough to move the conversation naturally from one subject to the next.  Marion, not surprisingly, was effortlessly lucid and engaging, distilling her considerable learning with a youthful and noticeably infectious enthusiasm.  Audience questions, including one from the former manager of Tower Bridge, carried on until the very last minute of the hour-and-a-half event before a throng queued up in the main festival bookshop to buy signed copies.

Princeton’s Hay experience this year extended well beyond Chaucer. Martin Rees, Astronomer Royal, talked about the future, and more specifically his wonderful On the Future, and later in the week Jonathan Bate attracted a crowd of 1500 for his talk on How the Classics Made Shakespeare. It’s difficult to get one’s head round a festival like Hay. For more than a week, thousands of readers converge on muddy farmland to see authors both prominent and obscure and to listen, learn, eat, drink, talk and buy books. The scale of it overwhelms and reassures at the same time. We’re fortunate to publish authors who are invited to engage with the public at such an annual gathering, and more literally we’re fortunate to be positioned in such proximity to the ‘town of books’.

Jonathan Bate on How the Classics Made Shakespeare

Ben Jonson famously accused Shakespeare of having “small Latin and less Greek.” But he was exaggerating. Shakespeare was steeped in the classics. Shaped by his grammar school education in Roman literature, history, and rhetoric, he moved to London, a city that modeled itself on ancient Rome. He worked in a theatrical profession that had inherited the conventions and forms of classical drama, and he read deeply in Ovid, Virgil, and Seneca. In a book of extraordinary range, acclaimed literary critic and biographer Jonathan Bate, one of the world’s leading authorities on Shakespeare, offers groundbreaking insights into how, perhaps more than any other influence, the classics made Shakespeare the writer he became.

Is Shakespeare on par with the ancient Greek and Roman writers of the classics? What made him stand out, rather than his contemporaries?

Astonishingly, considering that the theatre was still a fairly disreputable profession in Shakespeare’s time, people began comparing his works to those of classical antiquity even in his lifetime. His poems were compared to those of Ovid, his comedies to Plautus and his tragedies to Seneca. A few years after his death, his fellow-dramatist Ben Jonson wrote a poem in his memory—it’s included in the First Folio—in which he claimed that Shakespeare’s plays actually surpassed those of the ancients. Given that Jonson himself was phenomenally learned in the classics, that was a striking claim indeed. It does immediately provoke the question: why has Shakespeare and not Jonson or any of the other fine dramatists of the Elizabethan age become our classic, the modern equivalent of Sophocles or Virgil? That’s a question I’ve explored in my earlier books on the history of Shakespeare’s posthumous reputation—I return to it in the final chapter of this book, where I look at the classical idea of “fame”—but the implicit answer I have found, in the several years it took to research and write How the Classics made Shakespeare, is that the sheer range of his work was unmatched by any contemporary. Jonson was more obviously compared to Horace, Spenser to Virgil and Bacon to Cicero, but Shakespeare seemed to combine the gifts of them all. Similarly, Marlowe was great in tragedy and Jonson in comedy, but Shakespeare was, as he wittily puts it himself in Hamlet, the master of every genre, “tragical-comical-historical-pastoral.”

How important was it that Shakespeare’s audiences understand allusions to fables and myths? Did Elizabethan theatre-goers have greater cultural literacy than modern audiences at Shakespeare plays when it came to understanding these references?

This is a big theme—and an anxiety—in my book. You have to remember that Latin was the absolute core of the Elizabethan schoolroom curriculum. Grammar school meant Latin grammar, morning, noon and night. The history, literature, thought and culture of ancient Rome—and, to a lesser extent, Greece—was everywhere in education, in the Elizabethan frame of mind, even, I suggest, in the architecture and iconography of the city of London. The theatres themselves were designed on Roman models. This meant that anyone who was literate, and probably quite a few citizens who were not, would have known what Shakespeare was talking about when one of his characters mentioned Hercules or Julius Caesar or Lucrece or Adonis or Actaeon or Alcibiades and a hundred others. My anxiety is that with the decline in knowledge of classical literature, history and mythology, many such references now pass over the heads of playgoers and students. For example, I have a riff in the book that begins with an inscription on a funeral monument in a London church in the parish where Shakespeare lived and then goes into a reference to Jason and the Golden Fleece in The Merchant of Venice. Both the monument maker and the playwright clearly assumed that people would know that story—but not many of us know it now (though maybe it is handy that Disney has reanimated some of the old classical myths!).

In the book, you say that Shakespeare and his fellow playwrights agreed that “a work was good not because it was original, but because it resembled an admired classical exemplar.” If there are only 7 basic plots under the sun, why do modern audiences and writers frown upon stories that aren’t “original” while also still appreciating Shakespeare for his ability to pay homage to the classics? 

I like to tell my students that they need to get the nineteenth-century Romantic idea of genius and originality out of their head when they think about how Shakespeare put his plays together. It’s better to find an analogy in the way that art students were trained for centuries: you begin by copying the works of the great masters—that is how you hone your technique— and then you start performing variations on classical themes. That is how you prove your ingenuity: by variation and embellishment, not starting with a blank canvas. My book grew from a series of lectures at the Warburg Institute in London: it was the Warburg scholars, such as E. H. Gombrich in whose memory the lectures were named, who did more than anyone else to help us to understand this Renaissance process of offering original re-presentations that engage in dialogue with what they called “the classical tradition.”

Plenty of people have accused Shakespeare of plagiarism, or of lacking sufficient training in Greek and Latin. What are some other common misconceptions about Shakespeare that you’d like to rebut?

These claims go back to Shakespeare’s own time and to the indignation of university-educated dramatists, such as Robert Greene (who called Shakespeare an “upstart crow”), upon witnessing the rapid rise to theatrical prominence of the man from the backwoods with only a grammar school education to his name. But we need to remember that the grammar school in Stratford-upon-Avon produced some real talent—one of the schoolmasters was a published author of Latin verse, while Shakespeare’s fellow pupil Richard Field became a distinguished printer of books in many languages. The danger of the misconception created by jealous writers such as Greene is that it leads all too easily to the idea that Shakespeare couldn’t have been educated enough to write the plays … and that leads to all those ridiculous authorship conspiracy theories. The classical learning in the plays precisely matches that of the grammar school curriculum, with some later reading added on (notably the English translations of Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Plutarch’s Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans). The poems and plays are emphatically not written in the very different styles that we find among university-educated dramatists, Inns of Court trained lawyers, let alone aristocrats.

Is there any classic tale that Shakespeare reimagined that has made a lasting impression on you? 

I guess the one that has most haunted me is his adaptation of Ovid’s story of how the artist Pygmalion made a statue of a woman that was so beautiful that he fell in love with it and the gods then brought it to life. That’s an allegory of the power of aesthetic delight and a very sexy story, but also a slightly seedy one in which the woman is merely the object of desire. What is beautiful about Shakespeare’s reimagining is that the statue is not some abstract notion of female beauty, but a once and once again beloved wife who has been abused by unfounded male sexual jealousy and is then given back, so that the husband has a second chance—I’m talking, of course, about Hermione and Leontes in The Winter’s Tale, where the reanimation at the end is an allegory of the power of theatrical magic (achieved through distinctively female agency in the form of Paulina) and at the same time a triumph of love as opposed to an act of sexual desire. The whole question of eros and its relation to theatre and to magic is at the heart of my book.

In your opinion, are there any writers from the past century who drew upon the classics and/or Shakespearean plots and might stand the test of time like Shakespeare still does today?

There was no guarantee that it would be Shakespeare rather than some other dramatist who became our immortal, and by the same account it would be a fool’s game to guess who will and who will not endure from the last hundred years. What does strike me, though, is that the poets whom I find myself reading—as Ben Jonson said we should read Shakespeare—“again and again” all seem to have been steeped in the classics, fascinated by the old stories and adept at translating, imitating and remaking them. I am thinking, for example, of W. B. Yeats, Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes and Seamus Heaney. They were the poets who, along with Shakespeare, were my first “classics” when I was a teenager and a student.

Jonathan Bate is Provost of Worcester College and professor of English literature at the University of Oxford and Gresham Professor of Rhetoric at Gresham College. His many books include Soul of the Age: A Biography of the Mind of William Shakespeare and an award-winning biography of Ted Hughes. He broadcasts regularly for the BBC, has been on the board of the Royal Shakespeare Company, is the coeditor of The RSC Shakespeare: Complete Works,

Marion Turner on Chaucer: A European Life

More than any other canonical English writer, Geoffrey Chaucer lived and worked at the centre of political life—yet his poems are anything but conventional. Edgy, complicated, and often dark, they reflect a conflicted world, and their astonishing diversity and innovative language earned Chaucer renown as the father of English literature. Marion Turner, however, reveals him as a great European writer and thinker. To understand his accomplishment, she reconstructs in unprecedented detail the cosmopolitan world of Chaucer’s adventurous life, focusing on the places and spaces that fired his imagination.

What compelled you to write a biography about Chaucer that focuses on place rather than chronological events in his life?  

I was trying to find a way to get under his skin. Although we have an extraordinary amount of information about Chaucer—mainly because he was a government servant, and records were meticulously kept—we don’t have personal letters, diaries, recollections, the kind of material biographers of more recent subjects can access. But I realised that I could get into his head—his imagination—by focusing on his environment: the art he saw, the streets he travelled, the kinds of buildings and structures he lived in. He had an extraordinarily adventurous life—travelling to multicultural communities in the Iberian peninsular, being taken prisoner and ransomed in the Hundred Years War, travelling at least twice to Italy, picking up manuscripts on the way, seeing slave markets in Genoa and the art of Giotto in Florence. Some of my chapters focus on actual places, such as Navarre, Vintry Ward in London, or Reims; others on more conceptual spaces such as Peripheries, Thresholds, and the Cage; and others on institutions such as the Inn, the Great Household, and the Abbey. For me, this structure enabled me to get inside Chaucer’s world, to think, for instance, about what it was like to live in a much more public way than we do now. And this structure also allowed me to follow particular themes and threads more organically than a strictly chronological structure would. At the same time, I am interested in the development of his imagination across time—in how he became the poet of the Canterbury Tales—so I did maintain a rough chronology, with the book divided into three parts that each span a phase of his life. One wonderful thing is that many of the places that mattered in Chaucer’s life can still be viewed today—the walls and Tower of London, for instance, or the medieval town of Olite in Navarre. I found tracing his footsteps to be profoundly important as I researched the book.

Why was writing a narrative poem in English so revolutionary in the 14th century? What was particularly challenging about that task, from a linguistic and stylistic standpoint?

People had been writing long poems in English before Chaucer, and indeed there is an unbroken tradition of poetry in English going back to Beowulf and even earlier. But it wasn’t a prestigious language in Chaucer’s day—the prestigious languages were French and Latin, and English was very much the poor relation. Then things started to change, and Chaucer was at the forefront of that change. In the second half of the fourteenth century, Chaucer was part of an upsurge in the production of texts in English—other poets, such as Gower, Langland and the anonymous author of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight were also writing in English, religious writers including the female author Julian of Norwich were beginning to write texts, and English was increasingly used in government—for instance in the law courts.

Chaucer was an innovator in what he did with English. At this time, court poets were writing in French, and it was completely new to write a courtly love poem—these were called ditz amoureux—in English. When Chaucer wrote his first long poem, the Book of the Duchess, it was very much in the style of French poets, such as Machaut and Froissart. Chaucer then went into a kind of experimental frenzy—he developed all kinds of new verse forms, and really pushed the boundaries of what English poetry could do. Most notably, he invented the iambic pentameter—the ten syllable, five stress line that became the building block of English poetry, and was used by later poets such as Shakespeare. Chaucer had to borrow a lot of words from other languages, and invent new words, to expand what English could do. He even complains in one short poem about the scarcity of words in English. Indeed, he was so newfangled that he invented the word newfangled!

Clearly, Geoffrey Chaucer is one of the most important figures in the English literary canon because of his myriad contributions to the language and the poetic form. Is there anything that readers might find surprising?

So many things. The idea of Chaucer as father of English literature came about after his death, in the fifteenth century, and has gathered momentum ever since then. But in many ways, it really misrepresents him, and makes people think of him as a rather establishment, patriarchal, national figure. One of the things that I want to get across in this book is that he was a great European figure—and that for Chaucer the idea that being English somehow meant not being European would have been crazy. His choice to write in English was very much inspired by what Italian poets (such as Dante and Boccaccio) had been doing—he was part of an international trend to focus on more accessible vernaculars, rather than prestigious, exclusive languages. His life was outward-facing—he travelled a great deal, was multilingual, and in London was living at the heart of global trade networks. You could buy spices from Indonesia in London in the fourteenth century, and Chaucer’s childhood ward had more immigrants living there than any other London ward.

And much of Chaucer’s writing is indeed focused on the importance of allowing different kinds of people to read and to tell stories. In contrast to his sources, when Chaucer wrote a tale-collection he ostentatiously made sure that the tellers were from myriad social groups, and refused to allow principles of hierarchy to dictate the order of the tales. Another great example is his dream poem, the House of Fame, a poem which attacks the idea of the canon, and emphasises that a poet or storyteller can’t only rely on old books—they have to go to the streets, listen to their neighbours’ gossip, find inspiration in life as well as libraries. Literature, for Chaucer, was dynamic and living, and that is one reason why it has survived so well and continues to inspire so many contemporary poets to make their own creations. He’d have loved that!

A particularly disturbing anecdote from the book reveals that Chaucer was very likely accused of raptus, or rape, though this is hotly contested by literary critics who hold that his treatment of female characters made him more sympathetic towards women in general. What does this shred of evidence mean for us as readers, when we’re forced to grapple with the overlap between an important writer’s public and private lives, or between their works of fiction and their reality? 

That’s such a difficult question, and it has many parts to it. I suppose the key question here is what is the relationship between life and works? It seems to me to be very dangerous to assume that because someone shows sympathy to women in their writings, or music, or films, they could not also be personally violent towards them. Whatever Chaucer, or Marlowe, or Ezra Pound did or thought does not, ultimately, affect my judgement of their art. And if we only read works written by people of whose opinions and actions we approved, we’ll certainly be intellectually impoverished. I do think there is a difference if we are talking about people such as Roman Polanski, or Michael Jackson, whose victims are still alive today—a difference in terms of our sensitivity towards and respect for those people. A separate question is whether Chaucer was indeed guilty of this accusation—and that remains an open question, which scholars are still debating, and which I do talk more about in the book. I’m also interested in many aspects of his relationships with women in this biography—in particular his daughter, whom no one has written about before, and his first employer, Elizabeth de Burgh, who dressed him in scandalously tight trousers when he was a teenage page.

What do you hope that readers take away from Chaucer? 

One of the mantras of the Canterbury Tales is ‘diverse men, diversely they said.’ In other words, different people have different opinions. Chaucer himself is profoundly interested in perspective, in the idea that what you see depends on where you are standing—both literally and metaphorically, That’s something that contemporary scientists and artists were interested in too, as men such as Oresme debated about the rotation of the earth, for instance. In the Tales, Chaucer shows us that the same tale can be told in contrasting ways by different tellers; that readers or listeners will interpret stories in varying ways; and that no one interpretation is final or authoritative. I hope that readers will be caught by surprise and interest when they read about the global medieval world, or about Chaucer’s preoccupation with imagining astral flight, or about Chaucer’s role looking after the king’s falcons, or about what it was like to be imprisoned in 1359, or about Chaucer’s journeys amongst Jewish and Muslims communities, to give a few examples. But mainly I hope that each reader finds something that fascinates them, something that maybe challenges a previously-held assumption or belief—but what that is might be different for each reader.

Marion Turner is associate professor of English at Jesus College, University of Oxford.

 

 

 

Miller Oberman: On Mentorship

ObermanWhen I was sixteen, like many teenagers, I worked in a corporate coffee shop in a corporate bookstore; I won’t name them here. In that bookstore I started to read contemporary poetry. I read everything lucille clifton had written and could recite half of it, and I read Split Horizon by Thomas Lux. By chance, I saw in a magazine that he taught a summer workshop at Sarah Lawrence College, and applied. It was the first time I ever printed my poems and put them in an envelope. I was accepted, and my parents let me get on a bus alone to go from Virginia to New York. When I arrived, I was told that the workshop “was for adults,” but I argued my way into Lux’s classroom, and at the end of the week, he suggested I come to school there. I never tested well and wasn’t sure I could get in, but he said to apply and to “shove a note in there that says ‘see Tom Lux about this kid.’” I did. It wasn’t until he died in early 2017 that I realized how common this story is. There are hundreds, maybe thousands of poets Tom taught, helped get into school, found jobs for, believed in.

I had incredible teachers as an undergraduate. Marie Howe sat me down behind her desk and physically taught me how to make line breaks, and I think I have most of her book What the Living Do memorized. Suzanne Gardinier taught me patience and persistence, and that good poets are better readers, and Victoria Redel showed me the freedom in rejecting barriers between genres. But Tom was my first mentor, and the first poet who made me believe I could be one myself.  

Tom was an incandescent teacher. On the first day of class he read us Hart Crane’s “To Brooklyn Bridge,” performed it, really, and though I followed almost none of it, it was somehow the most beautiful thing I’d ever heard. Perhaps this is because after he finished reading it, he said, in the same tone as he’d read it in: “I would sell every single one of your souls to have written a single line of this poem.” I read it again. And again. Today it reminds me of Tom’s poem, “An Horatian Notion,” from Split Horizon, the book that caused me to apply to the summer workshop in the first place. Tom begins by describing what he sees as the illusion of God-given genius or inspiration, “the gift,” model, which he considers ridiculous. He counters, arguing instead:

 

              You make the thing because you love the thing

              and you love the thing because someone else loved it

              enough to make you love it.

 

For Tom, the removal of the common fantasy of the artistic “bolt of fire” only adds intensity to the process. The poem concludes:

 

              And with that your heart like a tent peg pounded

              toward the earth’s core.

              And with that your heart on a beam burns

              through the ionosphere.

              And with that you go to work.

 

This “heart” burning “through the ionosphere” has everything to do with mentorship. It is how we are made, how we measure ourselves, what we take with us. This is the eternal life art promises—someone loves a thing “enough to make you love it,” and you love it enough to make another love it, and so on. It doesn’t come from heaven, it’s not a bolt from the blue, it comes from our mentors; either on the page or in the flesh. Taking the mystery out of the process doesn’t diminish it: we still get the “core,” the center of the earth and the heart, and the “ionosphere,” as our words travel outwards, above the earth’s surfaces and our own.

Tom died just before my first book, The Unstill Ones came out, and the fact that he read it and wrote about it means a great deal to me. As I did when I was young, I nervously printed the poems and mailed them to him, hoping that when he read it, he would see some of his teaching in my poems in a way that might make him proud. I know that the poems in the book where I see his influence are some of my own favorites. I hear Tom’s voice in my poem “Lies After the War,” because it’s dark and funny at the same time, one of the only poems in the book that attempts humor. And of course, in my poem “Voyages,” which begins with a quote from Hart Crane: “and could they hear me, I would tell them.”

Miller Oberman has received a number of awards for his poetry, including a Ruth Lilly Fellowship, a 92Y Discovery Prize, and Poetrymagazine’s John Frederick Nims Memorial Prize for Translation. His work has appeared in PoetryLondon Review of Books, the NationBoston ReviewTin House, and Harvard Review. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.

Browse Our Literature Catalog 2019

Our new Literature catalog includes one of Jane Austen’s most charming youthful “novels”-in-miniature, a look at how New York’s Lower East Side inspired new ways of seeing America, a compelling history of the national conflicts that resulted from efforts to produce the first definitive American dictionary of English, and much more.

If you’ll be at MLA 2019 in Chicago this weekend, stop by Booths 220-222 to see our full range of recent literature titles.

Most people think Jane Austen wrote only six novels. Fortunately for us, she wrote several others, though very short ones, while still a young girl.

Austen was only twelve or thirteen when she wrote The Beautifull Cassandra, an irreverent and humorous little masterpiece. Weighing in at 465 occasionally misspelled words, it is a complete and perfect novel-in-miniature, made up of a dedication to her older sister Cassandra and twelve chapters, each consisting of a sentence or two. This charming edition features elegant and edgy watercolor drawings by Leon Steinmetz and is edited by leading Austen scholar Claudia L. Johnson.

New 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. This book 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.

In The Dictionary Wars, Peter Martin recounts the patriotic fervor in the early American republic to produce a definitive national dictionary that would rival Samuel Johnson’s 1755 Dictionary of the English Language. But what began as a cultural war of independence from Britain devolved into a battle among lexicographers, authors, scholars, and publishers, all vying for dictionary supremacy and shattering forever the dream of a unified American language.

Gift Guide: Biographies and Memoirs!

Not sure what to give the reader who’s read it all? Biographies, with their fascinating protagonists, historical analyses, and stranger-than-fiction narratives, make great gifts for lovers of nonfiction and fiction alike! These biographies and memoirs provide glimpses into the lives of people both famous and forgotten:

Galawdewos Life of Walatta-Petros book coverThe radical saint: Walatta-Petros

Walatta-Petros was an Ethiopian saint who lived from 1592 to 1642 and led a successful nonviolent movement to preserve African Christian beliefs in the face of European protocolonialism. Written by her disciple Galawdewos in 1672, after Walatta-Petros’s death, and translated and edited by Wendy Laura Belcher and Michael Kleiner, The Life of Walatta-Petros praises her as a friend of women, a devoted reader, a skilled preacher, and a radical leader, providing a rare picture of the experiences and thoughts of Africans—especially women—before the modern era.

This is the oldest-known book-length biography of an African woman written by Africans before the nineteenth century, and one of the earliest stories of African resistance to European influence. This concise edition, which omits the notes and scholarly apparatus of the hardcover, features a new introduction aimed at students and general readers.

 

Devlin_Finding Fibonacci book coverThe forgotten mathematician: Fibonacci

The medieval mathematician Leonardo of Pisa, popularly known as Fibonacci, is most famous for the Fibonacci numbers—which, it so happens, he didn’t invent. But Fibonacci’s greatest contribution was as an expositor of mathematical ideas at a level ordinary people could understand. In 1202, his book Liber abbaci—the “Book of Calculation”—introduced modern arithmetic to the Western world. Yet Fibonacci was long forgotten after his death.

Finding Fibonacci is Keith Devlin’s compelling firsthand account of his ten-year quest to tell Fibonacci’s story. Devlin, a math expositor himself, kept a diary of the undertaking, which he draws on here to describe the project’s highs and lows, its false starts and disappointments, the tragedies and unexpected turns, some hilarious episodes, and the occasional lucky breaks.

 

The college president: Hanna Gray Gray_Academic Life book cover

Hanna Holborn Gray has lived her entire life in the world of higher education. The daughter of academics, she fled Hitler’s Germany with her parents in the 1930s, emigrating to New Haven, where her father was a professor at Yale University. She has studied and taught at some of the world’s most prestigious universities. She was the first woman to serve as provost of Yale. In 1978, she became the first woman president of a major research university when she was appointed to lead the University of Chicago, a position she held for fifteen years. In 1991, Gray was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, in recognition of her extraordinary contributions to education.

Gray’s memoir An Academic Life is a candid self-portrait by one of academia’s most respected trailblazers.

 

The medieval historian: Ibn Khaldun Irwin_Ibn Khaldun book cover

Ibn Khaldun (1332–1406) is generally regarded as the greatest intellectual ever to have appeared in the Arab world—a genius who ranks as one of the world’s great minds. Yet the author of the Muqaddima, the most important study of history ever produced in the Islamic world, is not as well known as he should be, and his ideas are widely misunderstood. In this groundbreaking intellectual biography, Robert Irwin presents an Ibn Khaldun who was a creature of his time—a devout Sufi mystic who was obsessed with the occult and futurology and who lived in a world decimated by the Black Death.

Ibn Khaldun was a major political player in the tumultuous Islamic courts of North Africa and Muslim Spain, as well as a teacher and writer. Irwin shows how Ibn Khaldun’s life and thought fit into historical and intellectual context, including medieval Islamic theology, philosophy, politics, literature, economics, law, and tribal life.

 

The novelist and philosopher: Iris Murdoch Murdoch_Living on Paper book cover

Iris Murdoch was an acclaimed novelist and groundbreaking philosopher whose life reflected her unconventional beliefs and values. Living on Paper—the first major collection of Murdoch’s most compelling and interesting personal letters—gives, for the first time, a rounded self-portrait of one of the twentieth century’s greatest writers and thinkers. With more than 760 letters, fewer than forty of which have been published before, the book provides a unique chronicle of Murdoch’s life from her days as a schoolgirl to her last years.

The letters show a great mind at work—struggling with philosophical problems, trying to bring a difficult novel together, exploring spirituality, and responding pointedly to world events. We witness Murdoch’s emotional hunger, her tendency to live on the edge of what was socially acceptable, and her irreverence and sharp sense of humor. Direct and intimate, these letters bring us closer than ever before to Iris Murdoch as a person.

Jack Zipes: The Rise of Édouard Laboulaye from the Dead

I am not certain when the urge or itch began, but about ten years ago, when I founded the series of Oddly Modern Fairy Tales with Hanne Winarsky, then senior editor at Princeton University Press, I began to “rebel” against the classical well-known fairy tales, not to mention the insipid Disney fairy-tale films. I realized that they had become stale and commodified and had no historical relevance. The fairy tale is a mysterious hybrid genre and has secrets about our past to reveal if you value each tale’s historical idiosyncrasies. As a scholar of these tales, I realized you cannot deal with present socio-political-cultural conditions unless you have a firm grasp on historical transformation. Consequently, all my concerns as a scholar of folklore and fairy-tale studies and, also as a writer and translator of tales, made a huge U-Turn. Indeed, I began to search and research the gaps of the past that we needed to fill and still need to fill to make the present more substantial and pave the way for a better future.

In the particular case of folk and fairy tales, this led me to discover and uncover highly significant writers and illustrators of fairy tales in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Since I have always been a library nerd, a used book pack rat, and a flea market junky, it was not difficult for me to sniff out numerous neglected authors and their works. In the course of ten years, I have been fortunate not only to find amazing collections of fairy tales written by Kurt Schwitters, Bela Balázs, Naomi Mitchison, Walter De La Mare, Lafacadio Hearn, but also numerous unusual fairy tales by British writers of the 1930s, workers’ tales of the early twentieth century, and “decadent” French fairy tales of the late nineteenth century. Moreover, the books in the series have been edited by superb scholars and writers such as Maria Tatar, Marina Warner, Philip Pullman, Gretchen Schulz, Lewis Seifert, and Michael Rosen. Thanks to these works – with more to come – we now know that the popular fairy tale did not end and will not end in a homogenized form of happily ever after. Rather, the fairy tale as genre has never ended as a fraudulent happy end, it continues to startle us through diverse and extraordinary versions throughout the world.

The plans for the future include fabulous Japanese fairy tales by Lafcadio Hearn, Chinese stories of the early twentieth century during the onset of communism, Jewish tales by Nister, a somewhat bizarre rabbi, radical fairy tales written by Hermynjia zur Mühlen, an Austrian aristocrat, turned communist, provocative and dazzling Italian fairy tales from the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, Lisa Tetzner’s fairy-tale novel Hans Sees the World, about a boy’s adventures during the 1929 depression, and Yuri Olesha’s Three Fat Men, which concerns an upside-down world in Russia during the 1930s.

What makes Édouard Laboulaye’s political fairy tales of the late nineteenth century significant for today and for history is that he was truly the foremost writer of political fairy tales in all of Europe. In fact, I know of no other writer or politician in the nineteenth century who used the fairy tale so deftly and ironically to oppose tyranny. In addition, Laboulaye was very much an internationalist. He know many foreign languages and had an extraordinary knowledge of folk tales from oral traditions in Italy, Senegal, Egypt, Estonia, Russia, Germany, Iceland, and other countries, and he adapted them to sharpen their political implications and make them more acute. Furthermore, he was certainly a proto feminist: almost all of his tales have feisty female protagonists who courageously oppose stupid fathers, unjust husbands, and corrupt male courts of power. The major tale in my current collection, “Slap-Bam, or The Art of Governing Men,” is a wonderfully humorous narrative that argues for the importance of women in shaping the politics of a country.

Is such relevance reflected, then, in the nature of our current study of folklore and fairy tales at universities? How is it possible for such a writer like Édouard Laboulaye to escape the eyes of university students and their professors? Although political scientists in France are well aware of Laboulaye’s importance – a recent conference in France was dedicated to his work in jurisprudence and history – I have not read one single essay or book about his work in literature and folklore. Is this the fault of French literary scholars caught in the barbed wire and babble of French critical theory all over the world? Is this the fault of most universities in the world that do not have folklore programs, or which have eliminated them? I am not certain. But I have a certain urge and itch to find out why.

All woman: the utopian feminism of Charlotte Perkins Gilman

by Michael Robertson

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

RobertsonCharlotte Perkins Gilman is best known today for ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ (1892), a widely anthologised short story that mixes Gothic conventions with feminist insights, and a chilling dissection of patriarchy that seems as if it might have been co-authored by Edgar Allan Poe and Gloria Steinem. Fewer people know that Gilman began her career as a speaker and writer on behalf of Nationalism, a short-lived political movement inspired by Edward Bellamy’s best-selling utopian novel Looking Backward: 2000-1887 (1888). She ended it as a writer of her own utopian fictions, including Herland (1915), a playful novel about an ideal all-female society.

What does Gilman’s utopian feminism have to say to us now, when the dystopian pessimism of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) is resurgent?

As a young woman, Gilman was drawn to Bellamy’s utopian socialism because of his stance on women’s economic independence; in the society depicted in Looking Backward, every woman and man earns an ‘equal credit’. Bellamy was certain that, from this economic parity, gender equality would follow. Gilman took a different approach. She believed that the realisation of utopia depended on women’s ‘mother instinct’, and advocated what she called the ‘larger motherhood’. As she wrote in her Bellamyite poem ‘Mother to Child’ (1911):

For the sake of my child I must hasten to save
All the children on earth from the jail and the grave.

Her life’s work centred on the concept of what she called the ‘World’s Mother’ – the selfless, nurturing woman-spirit who loves, protects and teaches the entire human race.

During the first decade of the 20th century, following the collapse of Bellamy’s Nationalist movement, Gilman turned to utopian fiction, producing three novels, a novella, and a flock of short stories. All were variations on the same utopian blueprint: the ideal society could be achieved peacefully in a remarkably short time if only women were freed from conventional housework and childrearing (she envisioned a combination of communal living and professional childcare) in order to spread the self-sacrificing ethics of the larger motherhood.

In 1915, she broke this fictional mould with Herland, a utopian fantasy that combines the plot of Alfed, Lord Tennyson’s The Princess (1847) – the discovery of an all-female society – with the conventions of the masculine adventure tale. Three bold young men on a scientific expedition to a remote part of the globe hear tales of a land inhabited only by women, located in an inaccessible mountain range. The men obtain a biplane and pilot it into the mountains, where after landing they soon spy three beautiful young women and give chase. The athletic young women, sensibly attired in utopian bloomers, easily outrun the men, who are captured by a phalanx of unarmed but well-disciplined women who chloroform them and place them under house arrest in a guarded fortress.

At this point, the novel transitions into utopian exposition, with long disquisitions on Herland’s society. Gilman was remarkably indifferent to the typical concerns of utopian fiction: work, politics, government. Instead, she used her fantastical premise to focus on her own interests, such as animal rights. Herlanders have eliminated all domesticated animals because of the cruelty inherent in slaughtering them for food. They are appalled at the idea of separating cows from their calves. Any interference with the natural processes of mothering is abhorrent to them.

Mothering is at the centre of Herland society. The word ‘mother’ or its variants appears more than 150 times in the novel. The women of Herland reproduce parthenogenetically, bearing only daughters, who are raised communally: each child is regarded as the child of all. ‘We each have a million children to love and serve,’ one of the women explains. Gilman evidently felt no need to explain Herland’s economy because it seemed to her so obvious: these ‘natural cooperators’, whose ‘whole mental outlook’ is collective, have no use for the individualism and competitiveness inherent in capitalism. Instead, a motherly state meets every citizen’s basic needs.

Herland depends on Gilman’s interpretation of women’s ‘maternal instinct’, an idea she clung to despite her own disastrous experience as a mother. Following the birth of her only child, a daughter, when Gilman was 24, she was plunged into a horrendous depression, an episode that she drew on for ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’. When her daughter was three, Gilman separated from her husband; six years later, she divorced him and gave up custody of their child. Herland enabled her to reconcile the contradictions between her utopian celebration of the maternal spirit and her difficult personal experience. Although every woman in Herland is capable of parthenogenetic reproduction, only an elite is entrusted with rearing children, in a collectivised and professionalised fashion. Gilman’s interest in the topic blended her conviction that women, like men, owed it to the world to work outside the home with her self-exculpating belief that the raising of children is so vital to the future race that it must be entrusted to professionals. Gilman derided the smallness, the possessiveness of the average woman’s conception of motherhood: my children, my family, my home. Herlanders see every child as theirs, the entire population as one family, the nation as home. 

Herland dropped out of view soon after its publication. Gilman had serialised the novel in The Forerunner, her self-published magazine, which folded soon after, and it never came out in book form. The novel was resurrected in the late 1970s by the American scholar Ann J Lane, who edited a paperback edition. Initially, the novel was hailed as a rediscovered feminist classic. Later scholars were more critical. They singled out its gender essentialism, but also the eugenic regime that underlay Gilman’s utopianism: her obsession with improving the strategically undefined ‘race’. Drawing on Gilman’s other writings, they convincingly argued that white racism is central to her utopian project.

Four decades after its rediscovery, Herland no longer seems the purely playful, light-hearted speculative fiction it once did. Nor does its central theme of collective child-rearing seem that different from the gendered regimes animating The Handmaid’s Tale – which, with an unabashed sexist and racist in the White House, serves as a powerful cautionary tale for progressives. Dystopian fiction, however, lacks the visionary inspiration – what the German philosopher Ernst Bloch in the 1950s called ‘the principle of hope’ – that utopianism provides. 

Despite Herland’s time-bound shortcomings, we need its vision of a society without poverty and war, where every child is precious and inequalities of income, housing, education and justice are nonexistent. For all its faults, Herland remains an eloquent expression of the nonviolent democratic socialist imagination. As fully as any work in the utopian tradition, Herland reminds us of the truth of Oscar Wilde’s aphorism: ‘A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at.’Aeon counter – do not remove

Michael Robertson is professor of English at The College of New Jersey and the author of two award-winning books, Worshipping Walt: The Whitman Disciples and Stephen Crane, Journalism, and the Making of Modern American Literature. A former freelance journalist, he has written for the New York Times, the Village VoiceColumbia Journalism Review, and many other publications. Most recently, he is the author of The Last Utopians: Four Late Nineteenth-Century Visionaries and Their Legacy.

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.

Michael North on What is the Present

The problem of the present—what it is and what it means—is one that has vexed generations of thinkers and artists. Because modernity places so much value on the present, many critics argue that people today spend far too much time in the here and now—but how can we tell without first knowing what the here and now actually is? What Is the Present? takes a provocative new look at this moment in time that remains a mystery even though it is always with us. Presenting an entirely new conception of the temporal mystery Georg Lukács called the “unexplained instant,” this book explores how the arts have traditionally represented the present—and also how artists have offered radical alternatives to that tradition.

What inspired you to write a book about the present?

I’m interested in the fact that some of the most obvious and ordinary aspects of life are also the most mysterious. The present is one of these. You might say, in fact, that the present is the most obvious aspect of life, one that we can never get away from. And yet, whenever you come to think about it at all seriously, it becomes very confusing.

How so?

Well, we tend to think of the present as something like a dash on a timeline or a tick mark on a clock, as if it were nothing more than an ultra-thin divisor between past and future. But we also think of ourselves as living in the present, and this implies that it takes up some amount of time. If so, then how much time does it take up? Is its length always the same or does it change from time to time or even from person to person? And then if the present is separate from past and future, how does time get connected back up again? If I watch as I move my arm, I seem to see the whole movement as one indivisible process, not as a series of snapshots. In other words, I seem to see the whole process as if it were happening now, not separated out into past, present, and future. And yet logically the very beginning of that movement must be in the past by the time the whole movement is concluded. How do we come to see it as one apparently simultaneous arc?

Couldn’t some of these puzzles be cleared up by scientific investigation?

Unfortunately, science just makes it worse. For a long time, physiological psychologists hoped to isolate the present by measuring human reaction times, on the assumption that the shortest possible reaction time could be taken as the length of the present. But they could never really come up with a consistent value. Now it seems that the human nervous system may be governed by a number of different clocks, running at different rates. There isn’t any central agent to which all the various parts of the nervous system report, so in a sense there isn’t a single physiological present at all.

But surely there must be an objective present, even if the subjective present turns out to be a fiction?

I guess not. Go outside some night and look up at the stars. The starlight you see in the “present” is actually billions of years old, some of it more and some of it less. What sense does the concept of the present make in that context? As our knowledge of the universe has expanded, it has become less and less possible to believe in the Enlightenment concept of a universal simultaneity, a now that would synchronize all the matter in existence.

Does any of this make a difference on a more practical level?

It could. We hear a lot of complaints nowadays about the present, how it has become too important, crowding out the past and the future. These complaints rely on the assumption of a normative present, one that is neither too long nor too short, but just right. If this present is a fiction, then we are flogging ourselves for no reason. And it turns out that if you examine the evidence offered for this normative present, the little that exists is primarily figurative in nature.

Figurative in what sense?

The present is almost always explained in metaphorical terms. A time-line, for instance, is a spatial metaphor, with a point or a short dash representing the present. People sometimes think of the present as something like a single frame in a movie, static by itself but fluid when shown with the entire film. Versions of this particular metaphor go all the way back to the magic lantern, which Locke used as a metaphor for the experience of time. It turns out, though, on close inspection, that these are not metaphors for something else. Where the present is concerned, these metaphors are all there is. In fact, it is because of the force and vividness of these metaphors that we continue to believe in the present, though it has always been so hard to establish its actual status.

So does that mean we should abandon a category that has always seemed essential to our understanding of time? Is there no future for the present?

An important part of this book is an account of how the arts have represented and used the present. Painters, writers, and film-makers have had to contend with the problem of the present in various ways, and the solutions they have come up with are more flexible and expansive than the standard notion of it as a thin slice of time sandwiched between past and future. I’m particularly fond of George Kubler’s version of this when he calls the present “a plane upon which the signals of all being are projected.” It sounds a lot like our present right now, with its apparently infinite access to all of recorded history, but it suggests a present that is bigger and more comprehensive, not smaller and more isolated. In this sense, the present contains the past, and I guess in a sense it contains the future as well.

Michael North is professor of English at the University of California, Los Angeles. His many books include Novelty: A History of the New, Machine-Age Comedy, and Camera Works: Photography and the Twentieth-Century Word.

Michael Robertson on The Last Utopians

RobertsonFor readers reared on the dystopian visions of Nineteen Eighty-Four and The Handmaid’s Tale, the idea of a perfect society may sound more sinister than enticing. In The Last Utopians, a lively literary history of a time before “Orwellian” entered the cultural lexicon, Michael Robertson reintroduces us to a vital strain of utopianism that seized the imaginations of late nineteenth-century American and British writers and readers. The book delves into the lives and works of four key figures—Edward Bellamy, William Morris, Edward Carpenter, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman—who lived during an extraordinary period of literary and social experimentation. The publication of Bellamy’s Looking Backward in 1888 opened the floodgates of an unprecedented wave of utopian writing. Morris, the Arts and Crafts pioneer, was a committed socialist whose News from Nowhere envisions a future Arcadia. Carpenter boldly argued that homosexuals constitute a utopian vanguard. Gilman, a women’s rights activist and author of “The Yellow Wallpaper,” wrote Herland, a visionary tale of an all-female society. Read on to learn more about utopian dreaming and action, in both their time and ours.

When did you get the idea to write this book? 

At a lunch on Nassau Street in Princeton with Hanne Winarsky, my former editor at Princeton University Press. I had just completed Worshipping Walt, my group biography of Walt Whitman’s disciples, and Hanne and I were batting around ideas for my next book project. Writing Worshipping Walt, I’d become fascinated by Edward Carpenter, a British writer attracted to Whitman by his proclamations of love between men. Hanne asked what particularly interested me about Carpenter. I replied, “His utopianism. His bold and eccentric and wonderful idea that homosexual men and women constitute the advance guard of the utopian future.” By the end of the lunch, I had the chapters of The Last Utopians mapped out.

Sounds a bit like a cartoon lightbulb-going-on moment.

It does, doesn’t it? When I told that story to a friend, he said he knew lots of writers who had had the same experience, but it always happened late at night, in a bar, and involved ideas scribbled on cocktail napkins that made no sense the next day.

Your title and subtitle seem to be at odds. Your title claims that Carpenter, Edward Bellamy, William Morris, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman were the last utopians, but the subtitle refers to their legacy. What’s up with that?

I hope there’s a creative tension at work. These four writers were indeed part of the last generation of artists and intellectuals who took utopia seriously—who believed in the importance of laying out their visions of a transformed, better society, and who believed that we could reach utopia through a benign evolutionary process. After World War I—and after World War II, the Holocaust, Stalin, Hitler, Pol Pot—that sort of grand utopian vision became increasingly untenable. But I didn’t want to end the book on the battlefields of the Great War. The philosopher Ernst Bloch argued the “the hope principle” is as basic to human nature as the pleasure principle, and I think the utopian impulse is alive and well today. It just takes different forms. My last chapter is all about contemporary utopianism.

What’s behind your choices of the contemporary utopian communities and movements that you describe in your last chapter?

I wanted to explore sites and movements that share the values of Bellamy, Morris, Carpenter, and Gilman. In brief, those are a commitment to democratic economic equality, an interest in alternatives to the patriarchal nuclear family and compulsory heterosexuality, a progressive spirituality that locates the divine in the human and natural worlds, and the search for a simple lifestyle in harmony with nature. In a couple of cases, I found contemporary movements directly inspired by one of the last utopians. I attended a retreat in Scotland of the Edward Carpenter Community, a gay men’s group, and I spend a weekend in Vermont with the Radical Faeries, gender noncomformists who embrace Carpenter’s radical utopian vision. But most of the contemporary utopians I encountered had no knowledge of Carpenter, et al.

Who are those other contemporary utopians?

I found some of them in what used to be called “utopian communes” but now are known as “intentional communities.” I visited two of the largest, oldest, and best-known communities, Twin Oaks in Virginia and Findhorn in Scotland, and I spent a week at Erraid, which is located on a tiny island in the Scottish Hebrides. I was also able to visit a short-lived but influential community: Occupy Wall Street. Every utopian thinker is interested in education, and that’s especially true of Rudolf Steiner, the eccentric Austrian philosopher and founder of Waldorf schools. I spent a wonderful day visiting classes at the local Waldorf school. Finally, the contemporary food movement, with its vision of small, sustainable, community-supported agriculture has a powerful utopian vision, and I visited a lot of farms and gardens.

The research must have been enjoyable.

It was. I spent a lot of time with big-hearted optimists in a variety of interesting places. I picked radishes in the rain with a chatty woman from East London, talked about utopia with Michael Moore at Occupy Wall Street, chatted with ten-year-old boys knitting at a Waldorf school, played frisbee with the Radical Faeries, and built planters out of dumped tires in an empty lot in Trenton.

You say in the book that we’re in a golden age for dystopian fiction. Isn’t this a peculiar moment to publish a book about utopia? Why should we care? 

It’s easy to understand why dystopian fiction is so popular right now, given the resurgence of right-wing fundamentalism, misogyny, nativism, and racism; the reality of climate change; our increased awareness of police brutality and invasions of privacy; the crudeness and mendacity of our political culture. But without a utopian vision of a better world, we’re reduced to merely reacting to the latest outrage or resigning ourselves to a morally intolerable status quo. I hope that The Last Utopians will inspire readers with its account of these nineteenth-century visionaries and their contemporary heirs. My goal is to help readers envision how they might live out some portion of a transformed future in the here and now.

Michael Robertson is professor of English at The College of New Jersey and the author of two award-winning books, Worshipping Walt: The Whitman Disciples (Princeton) and Stephen Crane, Journalism, and the Making of Modern American Literature. A former freelance journalist, he has written for the New York Times, the Village VoiceColumbia Journalism Review, and many other publications.

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.