Ferrymen: An Image of Passage that’s Stayed with Me


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For the sake of all human kind, read and appreciate the image provided by John Jeremiah Sullivan in his essay “Feet in Smoke” (collected in 2011’s Pulphead, p. 52). The author sits in a hospital room with his brother, Ellsworth, a musician recently electrocuted by a microphone while rehearsing in a garage:

How could he know he’d been dead, when he didn’t even know we were in a hospital, or that anything unusual had happened to him? Had a sudden clarity overtaken him?

“What was it? What was your vision?”

He looked up. The tears were gone. He seemed calm and serious. “I was on the banks of the River Styx,” he said. “The boat came to row me across, but…instead of Charon, it was Huck and Jim. Only, when Huck pulled back his hood, he was an old man…like, ninety years old or something.”

Sullivan is a superior essayist. Another touching, insightful, and well-regarded essay of his is “Mr. Lytle: An Essay,” about his friendship with the aging American scholar and writer Andrew Nelson Lytle.

But it’s the image Sullivan (or his brother, as it were) composes of Huck and Jim ferrying the boat across the River Styx, delivering the dead to the afterlife, that remains vivid in my mind. Huck, a character like Peter Pan – eternal youth personified – made old. Back on a raft. Still and forever on a raft.

– Joe

(image credit: Joachim Patinir’s “Landscape with Charon Crossing the Styx” 1515-1524)


Borrowing? We Call it Plagiarism: A Heartfelt Harangue


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In recent weeks two figures of American letters have come under some fire. One hundred years from now, despite or because of his controversy and influence on American literature, Gordon Lish will be remembered and his contributions continued to be studied; 2014 may be remembered as the year his poetic and pedagogical ethics and methods were put on trial. But I’ll write about Lish soon enough and with finer nuance.

Today, I’m going to write about the other figure who has confronted criticism recently. And I’m going to harangue for a minute because the subject is plagiarism and few things grate my cheese like plagiarism.

On June 12 The New Republic called Pulitzer Prize recipient Chris Hedges to task for extensive and egregious instances of plagiarism. He’s plagiarized Hemingway, he’s plagiarized fellow journalists, and he’s plagiarized himself.

Now, it’s only fair to say that Hedges has his supporters. But I believe they rally behind him for romantic moral reasons.

Of Hedges and certain writers like him it’s been known for some time that one can open any of their books to a random page and another of their books to another random page (even two random pages in the same book) and read essentially the same series of meaningless and rhetorically inflammatory sentences, the emptiness of which damages progressive thought and politics rather than benefiting them. Self-plagiarism, I had assumed, is the wheelhouse of such authors. How else do you explain publishing four books a year in some cases? (Between 2006 and 2010 Hedges published two books a year.) I’m not surprised by the discovery of Hedges’ dishonesty. I am surprised it’s taken this long for members of influential media outlets to discover it. And I’m bummed out that the crime will be forgotten in a week, forgiven in two, and repeated in three.

Hedges, and certain writers like him, talk a big, flowery game about the evils of neoliberalism and empire and the rise of brain-dead politics coinciding with the death of the Keynesian state. But they’re poachers, neoliberals themselves, demanding morbidly obese honourariums for redundant presentations, legitimating their claims on the premise they were once hippies, when in fact they are truly interested only in feeding their egos by cultivating a following of graduate student marionettes whose future is threatened by the very mentors who believe themselves intellectual martyrs if only they can hide their incomes and repeat the word “grassroots” often and loud enough.

Quoth the poet Stephen Berg, “Nothing is more destructive to a community, to creativity, than the desire to be seen as a good person and the deceptions that are mobilized to make that happen” (“The Poetry Does Not Matter”).

– Joe

Abyssopalegic: An Old Review, Resurfaced


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The following review of Sammy Harkham’s comic Poor Sailor originally appeared on Icon Sequential, another WordPress blog project I undertook with a very talented colleague a few years ago. I’m reissuing the essay on Verba Americana because Harkham is an imposing American talent.

The Deckhand Tragedy: Sammy Harkham’s Poor Sailor

Review by Joseph Frank (originally published on 2 December 2011)

The ocean has been on my mind. Melville’s Moby-Dick, of course; also Billy Budd. But I’ve been reading short fiction by Guy De Maupassant, as well. So it was a pleasure to discover his story, “At Sea,” which shares moral and thematic elements with Melville: an intense interest in the ill-fated curiosity of humans to find profit in the ocean; the ocean’s intolerance of humankind’s lice-like presence; among humans, a compassionless leader more concerned with his mission than his crew; a lonely conclusion, emphatically silent, focused on the protagonist’s orphanlike existence, which, upon reflection, is logical, unavoidable, but no less tragic.

Maupassant’s “At Sea” is about a young man called Javel Jr. on board a trawling smack captained by his older brother, Javel Sr.. When Javel Jr.’s arm becomes tangled in the rope pulling a net filled with fish, Javel Sr. refuses to cut the rope, which would cost him the net and catch. When they finally drop anchor and slacken the net, Javel Jr.’s arm is gristle. For days he ladles sea water over the wound, but gangrene sets in and he finally amputates his own arm. The fishermen examine it. They preserve it in salt. Once home, Javel Jr.’s family examine it. The carpenter builds a small coffin and a funeral is held. Javel Jr. gives up the sea and recalls the incident as the day his brother chose profit over blood.

Of the many stories Maupassant penned, “At Sea” is, perhaps, not counted among his most well-known.

Along comes American comic creator Sammy Harkham, maker of the esteemed avant-garde comics anthology Kramer’s Ergot, who adapts “At Sea” to comic form. That Harkham’s Poor Sailor (the title of his adaptation) can be read in less than fifteen minutes speaks nothing to the time it requires. It is a taciturn but deeply multilayered story. It maintains the concision of Maupassant’s original, in its parts and as a whole. The motivating hopes of the characters leads to brutalities that recall Melville. And something of Harkham’s decision to expose the story in reticent and ostensibly uncomplicated illustrations summons the sentences of Chekhov and Hemingway. It would be apt to use Poor Sailor to coin the term “graphic short story,” as opposed to the ever popular “graphic novel,” but that’s not my concern. What strikes me is how Harkham’s visual style and panel pacing unite traditional slapstick cartoon aesthetics with a deeply realist moral universe laden with ambivalence and tragedy.

Poor Sailor opens on pastoral domesticity. The main character, Thomas, lives in Edenic seclusion with his wife, Rachel. They are completing or repairing the thatch roof of their small house. They work, flirt, stroll, and skinny-dip. One day, Thomas’s older brother, Jacob, arrives. He encourages Thomas to join the crew of his trawling smack. Rachel refuses: Thomas has domestic responsibilities and her wellbeing to care for. As days pass, Thomas and Rachel grow distant, preoccupied by differing opinions of Jacob’s offer. One night, Thomas rises and says Rachel’s name – to wake her or to make sure she’s asleep, it’s unclear – but she sleeps and he leaves. Work aboard the smack is brutal. In foreign ports, Thomas is tempted by prostitutes, tattooed, and fed horrible food. He witnesses human cruelty far darker than anything in his life with Rachel. And the ocean is no kinder. One day, in particularly rough water, Jacob insists they drop the nets. Here, Harkham remains close to Maupassant: Thomas’s arm is caught and then crushed when Jacob refuses to cut the nets. Where Maupassant details the process of pouring salt water on the wounds, Harkham skips to the moment when they decide the arm must go. Jacob advises the amputation. It is unclear who performs the deed. Less an arm, Thomas remains with the ship, unable to work, dreaming of Rachel. One night, somewhere between the Indian Ocean and the Philippine Sea, they are ambushed by masked pirates who slaughter everyone. The ship burns and then sinks. Thomas clinging to debris. A rowboat filled with missionaries saves him. By foot and train, through valleys and forests, as snow begins to fall, Thomas returns home. When he arrives, he discovers a burial mound marked with a cross. He falls on his face. Five empty panels progress like weeks of silence. Finally, one-armed Thomas continues repairing the roof alone.

Harkham’s illustrations are darkly juvenile, and yet they recall well-established, indeed even watershed events in comic history. The aesthetics of his characters and scenes recall the stark monochromatic worlds of early Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks cartoons like Oswald the rabbit (Trolley Troubles 1927) and Mickey Mouse in Steamboat Willie (1928), as well as the Little Orphan Annie comics of Harold Gray (including unnervingly empty circles for eyes), and, more recently, Harkham’s Drawn & Quarterly colleague, Chester Brown, who cites Gray as an influence (Louis Riel: A Comic Strip Biography, “Forward”). Brown also cites Hergé, creator of Tintin; Harkham’s style equally references the French method ligne claire: clear line. But Harkham’s illustrations succinctly elaborate the oddly grotesque morphology of styles like those listed. Such characters usually exist according to the nonsensical, slapstick physics of hokey cartoon universes, but Harkham’s style asks what if the universe of such weird looking figures was ruled by moral ambiguities like our own? What if their strange bodies stood for something more than cutesiness? What if their look was the product of personifying how fucked up life is? With crisp precision, the weak shoulders, crudely large hands, dullard expressions, and hollow eyes of his characters transform the substances of their psychological lives and the unsympathetic fates into correspondingly ill-proportioned bodies.

Unlike the early Disney/Iwerks characters, who easily recover from myriad physical brutalities, Harkham’s characters are not so invulnerable. The story hinges on the event of mutilation and amputation. When Thomas loses his arm, our presuppositions of the traditional conventions of this illustration style are attacked. As Leonard Michaels argues about the goring of Hernandorena in Hemingway’s Death in the Afternoon (1932), Thomas – and, by extension, the graphic narrative tradition after which his aesthetic follows – is more essentially himself with a stump where his arm once was (“What’s a Story”): no character who is worth caring for, worth investing in, worth feeling pathos toward, is invincible. Pathos requires ambivalence, inarticulateness (depicted both literally and illustratively in Poor Sailor), and a sense that good intentions of best laid plans are in direct conflict with cruel fates against which we are helpless. The loss of Thomas’ arm represents the magnitude of what’s at stake. The stoicism of the characters and the narrative, especially when it is decided that Thomas’ arm must be severed, represents the only logical response to such an existence: ambivalence, bewilderment. And they foreshadow an even greater loss awaiting Thomas, one which serves to further expand the tragedy of his choice to leave Rachel: her death.

Another feature of Harkham’s style that brings the cartoonish aesthetic into our moral universe is his penchant for eliding decisive scenes, for letting them occur between panels; the audience gets a picture of the instant before a major event and the fallout thereafter. The event itself – Thomas’s departure, the moment of his injury, the amputation, his escape from the pirates, Rachel’s death – are suggested as though glimpsed by way of events signal them, rather than illuminating them in full. Lacunae like this bear the mark of Old Testament realism and, on Harkham’s behalf, are an ingenious exploitation of the ‘gutters’ between panels, or perhaps an ingenious investment into the gutter’s potential to host moments of unsayable and unseeable importance. Events so important they oppose articulation.

Early in the book, we glimpse one such event, after which all comparable events are omitted. Concluding the pastoral introduction, Hakham illustrates Thomas and Rachel standing naked in water, holding hands in silence, looking at one another with uncertain expressions. It is a definitive moment in the text – the height of what six panels preceding it worked toward: laying bare the couple’s love, simple though it may seem. It haunts the remainder of the story. It infuses the maiming of Thomas with the sense that he is not the only one injured – to return home with only one arm means he must forever bear the wound of betraying Rachel as well as the myriad ways it would impose upon Rachel. But that scenario, no matter how humbling and inconvenient, is no match for how the story actually ends, with Thomas returning to find that Rachel has died in his absence.

As I try to conclude this less-than-half-adequate review of Poor Sailor, I’m burdened by the feeling that I’ve done it a major injustice. I’ve barely articulated the story’s power to evoke unplumbed and unplumbable depths, which is achieved, in large part, by Harkham’s mastery of storytelling and illustration. Indeed, his revision of classically cartoonish iconography and his brilliant exploitation of gutter silences make for a taciturn tragedy that increases the scope of his imaginary, expanding it through the abovementioned cartoon traditions, while also gesturing Melville, Chekhov, Hemingway, and the Old Testament. (Thomas’s lone survival following the massacre by pirates echoes Ishmael floating on Queequeg’s coffin after Moby-Dick sinks the Pequod; his single-panel train journey home recalls Hemingway.)

“Poor Sailor” is a beautiful book. A heartbreaking story. An expert instance of narration by sequential pictures. An impressive example of the potential of the comic form for artful adaptation and, in this case, improvement of already impressive source material – though this last point has much to do with Harkham’s genius. It exhibits the power of pictures to tell a story with heavy emotional impact, without resorting to graphic gratuitousness or melodrama. Harkham disarms us with cartoonishness, draws us in with darkness, involves us by requiring interpretation between panels, and creates characters whose outer appearances reflect how feeble humans are, how grotesque our betrayals, failures, and fates.

– Joe

Suburban Nights


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It’s been too long since I last posted. And it’s high time Verba Americana came out of hibernation. And so I’ll make my return with a post that may invite a cease and desist notice, considering it was very recently published in a major American magazine. Here is Charles Simic’s haunting poem “The One Who Disappeared.”

Charles Simic

Simic is the former poetry editor at the Paris Review, and a recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for The World Doesn’t End (1990).

My interest in terse prose and narrative poetry is no secret, and so I’m not surprised by my admiration of “The One Who Disappeared.” To my mind, it recalls Robert Lowell’s “Skunk Hour” – depicting, as it does, the mystery inherent in warm summer nights in quiet suburban settings. As I did when writing of “Skunk Hour,” I’ll once more link such imagery to the eerie cinematic photographs of Gregory Crewdson.

– Joe

Uncertain Particles: Leonard Michaels and the Sound of Darkness


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In his essay “The Nothing That Isn’t There” – about silence and Edward Hopper’s painting “New York Movie” – Leonard Michaels quotes Wallace Steven’s poem “Man Carrying Thing,” which goes:

The poem must resist the intelligence
Almost successfully. Illustration:

A brune figure in winter evening resists
Identity. The thing he carries resists

The most necessitous sense. Accept them, then,
As secondary (parts not quite perceived

Of the obvious whole, uncertain particles
Of the certain solid, the primary free from doubt,

Things floating like the first hundred flakes of snow
Out of a storm we must endure all night,

Out of a storm of secondary things),
A horror of thoughts that suddenly are real.

We must endure our thoughts all night, until
The bright obvious stands motionless in cold.

The drama of Hopper’s painting, says Michaels, suggests meaning but resists understanding. The same can be said of “Man Carrying Thing,” which is why Michaels emphasizes the poem’s first sentence, “The poem must resist the intelligence / Almost successfully.” Beautifully, even oracularly, Michaels summarizes: “whatever is isn’t all there is, for there is everywhere only the weight and particular density of ubiquitous nothingness. The nothing that isn’t always there” (Michaels).

File:Leonard Michaels.jpg

In his own prose and with expert brevity Michaels explored the weight and density of ubiquitous nothingness. The title of one of his collections – not to mention the stories therein – infers deep and heartbreaking longing to confront the nothingness that isn’t there: I Would Have Saved Them if I Could (1975).

The first story from that collection is “Murderers.” It is about a group of adolescent boys who risk life to perch on a water tower so as to masturbate while watching their rabbi and his wife have sex before the open windows of their apartment. It begins:

When my uncle Moe dropped dead of a heart attack I became expert in the subway system. With a nickel I’d get to Queens, twist and zoom to Coney Island, twist again toward the George Washington Bridge—beyond which was darkness. I wanted proximity to darkness, strangeness. Who doesn’t? The poor in spirit, the ignorant and frightened. My family came from Poland, then never went anyplace until they had heart attacks. The consummation of years in one neighborhood: a black Cadillac, corpse inside. We should have buried Uncle Moe where he shuffled away his life, in the kitchen or toilet, under the linoleum, near the coffeepot. Anyhow, they were dropping on Henry Street and Cherry Street. Blue lips. The previous winter it was cousin Charlie, forty-five years old. Moe, Charlie, Sam, Adele—family meant a punch in the chest, fire in the arm. I didn’t want to wait for it.

Commensurate with the philosophical depth of his essay, Michaels’s story (indeed, his stories) moves through plot toward climax such that no exact answers are arrived at or even touched upon in a concrete way. His denouements make Joyce’s epiphanies feel like a sledgehammer over the head (see “Araby”). With Leonard Michaels, the reader clings to the protagonist’s back, follows the story from a point of strange uncertainty through a recognizable bizarreness of everyday life, not to a place of understanding but the feeling that stuff has changed, been altered, and, what’s more, that it will somehow be altered again. The profane material world of our eyes, ears, mouths, noses, and hands as well as methodologies that trust only these bodily tools alone are, by this regard, limitedly intelligent.

Like Hopper and Stevens and Plato before, Michaels is fascinated by “what isn’t available to our senses” (Michaels).

If life is like a night that is difficult to see through, “We must endure our thoughts all night, until/ The bright obvious stands motionless in cold.”

“Murderers” ends in the wake of a tragedy I won’t reveal here. I will say the characters do not discuss the tragedy. Which is telling – silence is the response and explanation.

In its final scene the city boys are sent to summer camp in the wilderness of the Catskills. Philip Liebowitz, the narrator (whose name is uttered once, by the rabbi, in a fit of terror), concludes: “At night, lying in the bunkhouse, I listened to owls. I’d never before heard that sound, the sound of darkness, blooming, opening inside you like a mouth.”

In other words, Philip achieves proximity – physically, philosophically, aurally – with “the weight and particular density of ubiquitous nothingness. The nothing that isn’t always there.”


Read “Murderers” and then read everything by Leonard Michaels you can find. Three of his stories are online at The New Yorker, where you may also listen to Rivka Galchen read “Cryptology.” Recently, FSG reissued most, if not all, of his previously published works in separate collections of essays, short fiction, and longer stuff. Wyatt Mason, David Bezmozgis, and Shalom Auslander have also written about Michaels.

Michaels died in 2003 at the age of 70, having experienced moderate celebrity as a writer, mostly due to his resistance to stardom and his devotion to smaller presses.

If it were up to me he’d be read in American Lit classes and Short Fiction classes and even have a grad seminar devoted to his work. (A Google search of the author turns up enough “for sale” essays on “Murderers” to make me believe that somewhere someone is teaching on him.)

Melville wasn’t appreciated until the 1920s and he died in 1891. “Literary” communities and conversations happening online care about Michaels to some extent; I’d say quite a bit. Maybe there’s greater attention coming his way in the years ahead.

– Joe

Fordlandia: On the Artwork and Literary Quality of the American Watercolourist Walton Ford


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It pleases me that my favourite living painter – the American watercolorist Walton Ford – can deftly interpret his own work with reference to great American literature.

Ford’s Wikipedia page says he paints “large scale” watercolours after the style of John J. Audubon (1785-1851), a French-American naturalist and painter known for realistic studies of North American birds (The Birds of America 1827-1839). The wildlife and ecosystems conservation group The Audubon Society is named for him.

Ford’s “large scale” approach to painting might more accurately be described as “life-sized.” Woodpeckers, parrots, owls, hawks, great auks; cobras, pythons, crocodiles; wolves, lions, tigers, bears, buffalo, camels, rhinos, elephants – Ford paints them to scale. In detail. In watercolour. On the brink of death and copulating, separately or simultaneously. Monkeys plunder banquet tables; flocks of birds carry off entire trees; a peacock with smoldering tail feathers wanders a barren landscape – Ford’s paintings are never without context or story, they are always something uncanny, allegorical, captivating but sinister. The scenes he renders make it appear as if Ford has caught the animals in a moment, caught them in the act.

And always, as I’ve said, to scale. This is important.

Because Ford’s latest series features King Kong.

It’s about these portraits – full-scale busts of the gorilla’s head as he appeared in 1933 – that Ford compares Kong to the narrator of Nabokov’s Lolita (1955) Humbert Humbert:

“The depression era Kong was misshapen, not modeled on any living ape. He has an odd, ugly, shifting charisma like Cagney, Edward G. Robinson, or Bogart. Naturally, his woman screamed in terror. She continues screaming throughout their time together. The grief of the original Kong is the grief of the unloved, and like Humbert Humbert or Frankenstein, the grief of the unlovable. In 1933, Fay Wray says words that would break any suitor’s heart. She shrinks from the chained Kong and tells her human lover, ‘I don’t like to look at him…’ Since Kong is a Hollywood tough guy, he covers up his heartbreak with violence and anger. These paintings are bout Kong’s heartbreak. I wanted to reveal the monster’s grief, his enormous sadness, the sorrow that the original Kong kept hidden from view.”

Kong and Humbert alike are enduring American archetypes. They are unsettlingly familiar insofar as they are attractive and destructive, sympathetic and repulsive, pastoral and apocalyptic – thrillingly controversial for all they represent.

Ford’s intelligent comparison of Kong and Humbert increases my admiration and appreciation of him and his art. He’s more than just obsessively meticulous in his research and complex brushwork – he’s also knowledgeable of great American literary art. He’s as thoughtful and analytic as he is ambitious.

Walton Ford is represented by Paul Kasmin Gallery in New York.

–          Joe

PS – Bonus points if you appreciate the juxtaposition of Ford’s painting of a great auk (“The Witch of St. Kilda” 2005) with the image from Kubrick’s Lolita (1962). I should also add that the corresponding banner (below) is a view of Manhattan, looking south from the observation deck of the Empire State building, in 1931: Kong’s vantage.


Working Class: On the Reach, Influence, and Imagery of Steinbeck and Thoreau


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Having said a thing or two about Steinbeck and Thoreau’s similarities and differences, I want also to simply provide some resources and links that may enhance a reader’s encounter with either or both of these writers.

Part of what drew my mind from Thoreau to Steinbeck was the product of channel surfing. Luck had it that I came across Ken Burns’s new documentary The Dust Bowl. Typical of Burns, The Dust Bowl is a tightly constructed, educational, and entertaining film. If you’re reading Steinbeck, but also if you’re reading Thoreau, the narrative it pulls from facts about the Great Depression, especially those migrant workers derogatorily termed “Okies” (about whose struggle Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath depicts), is enlightening.

The film also features a segment on Woody Guthrie (1912-1967), the iconic American folk musician, whose songs live on as the anthems of Depression-era migrant workers and working-class experiences. It was Guthrie who said, “I ain’t a communist necessarily, but I’ve been in the red all my life,” pointing to the importance of community, especially in times of economic downs (and drown).

In relation, here’s the song “The Ghost Tom Joad,” inspired by the protagonist of The Grapes of Wrath.” It’s written and recorded by an artist for whom Guthrie is a great influence, Bruce Springsteen. In the second clip, the same song is performed by Rage Against the Machine.

It’s also helpful, I find, to be aware of the photography of Dorothea Lange when reading Steinbeck. During the Depression, Lange, a photojournalist, was commissioned by the Farm Security Administration to document the experience of migrant workers from Oklahoma and the surrounding states who flocked to California in search of employment. I expect that, even if you’ve never heard of Lange, you’ll recognize her photographs.

Lange’s work is part of an American tradition of documenting the life of the economically exploited working- and lower-classes. Around the turn of the 20th century, Jacob Riis produced “How the Other Half Lives,” a book of pictures and text about people suffering from extreme poverty in New York. In 1906, Hamilton Holt published a collection of stories about the lives of immigrants titled The Life Stories of Undistinguished Americans as Told by Themselves. In a past post, I mentioned Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle (also 1906), which initiated the formation of what is today the United States Food and Drug Administration.

(I can’t help but to quickly mention that the shanty towns formed by migrant workers during the Depression were referred to as “jungles.” And that, as you know, PT Anderson’s film There Will Be Blood is an adaptation of Upton Sinclair’s novel Oil!. Well, there’s a scene in Anderson’s latest film The Master (a triumph!) that recalls Steinbeck – the protagonist, Freddie Quell is, for a time, living and working on a cabbage farm in the Salinas Valley (Steinbeck!); his homemade hooch mistakenly poisons an elderly worker and Quell is chased from the camp. The frame follows him sprinting across fields of tilled soil. In that moment, we may as well be watching Of Mice and Men.)

Finally, and in relation to my attention to pastoral imagery in my last post, I’m reminded of a recent Italian film depicting the promise of a pastoral life in the United States. Nouvomondo (Emanuele Crielese, dir., 2006; called Golden Door in its English release) stars Charlotte Gainsbourg as a British immigrant to the United States at the turn of the 20th Century. The boat she crosses the Atlantic on is largely populated by Italian immigrants. The film depicts the crossing as well as the treatment of these new Americans when they arrive at Ellis Island. In the beginning of the film, when characters speak of the all that is promised in America, they imagine six-foot tall chickens and vegetables so big they fit one-per wheelbarrow. They find life in the Promised Land to be very different. But the image of rivers running over with milk and honey is ironically rehashed moments before the credits roll, when we witness a growing number of people wading through milk with a creeping sense of bewilderment. Nina Simone’s iconic song “Sinnerman” enhances the eeriness of such a promise. It’s a memorable image:

That’s all for now.

–          Joe

The Concord Grapes of Wrath: On Henry David Thoreau and John Steinbeck


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As I reread Thoreau, my thoughts migrate to an author whose prose, humanity, and politics I admire: John Steinbeck.

While Steinbeck was particularly interested in people mired by struggle, his characters seem to want exactly what Thoreau calls a mechanical existence as workers. But Steinbeck’s characters want work precisely because their substance exceeds mechanization. They are so much more than mere automaton – they are families. They are fathers and mothers and daughters and sons with complex and happy and difficult histories, trying to get a leg up so they may live secure and joyful lives together. That all existence seems against them is the result of hoping so much and so hard. As with most great tragedy, time, fate, circumstances, whatever you call it, “produces from them forms which their youth gave no grounds for anticipating” (Auerbach “Odysseus’ Scar” 18).

The same description of change can apply to nations, too. It applies to the United States. I say this because, as I mentioned, I’m reading Thoreau again. I’m contemplating his politics.

It’s an ambivalent experience, reading Walden. I want to agree with a lot of Thoreau’s politics: his ideas about deliberate and necessary civil disobedience, about defying a mechanized life, but I can’t say I see much in his writing about community. I suspect he would disparage such things as Universal Healthcare and a social safety net, things I consider essential, because life guarantees nothing and if we want to live among each other, benefiting from the existence of other humans (in business and in culture, et cetera), than we owe it to each other, as with family, to look out for one another.

(Also – and this is where thoughts of Steinbeck sidle up alongside those of Thoreau – I am a young man nearing completion of a degree, an experience that, these days, feels less like approaching possibility and freedom and more like being thrust by a linebacker toward a cliff before all nothingness.)

Thoreau and Steinbeck distill ideas, ideals, and failures central to the United States of America and, as such, ideas, ideals, and failures consistently cherishes and mourned by writers produced inside that culture, whether romantic or realist or, let’s be real here, both.

The glorification of a pastoral existence is as old as our species. It’s as old as storytelling. We want better. We have always wanted better.  Wanting better, whatever better may be and no matter how many betters exist, is human. With Waldon, Thoreau is thinking toward his idea of better. His pastoralia (if I may appropriate terminology from George Saunders) is intensely remote and isolated, “as far off as many a region viewed nightly by astronomers. We are wont to imagine rare and delectable places in some remote and more celestial corner of the system…far from noise and disturbance.” It’s a nice idea. It’s a downright beautiful slice of prose. Who wouldn’t like such space, and described so expertly? But, I doubt the idea and such solitude are tenable to the extent suggested by Thoreau’s hyperbole.

Steinbeck, on the other hand, is also concerned for the wellbeing of individuals, though his concerns are grounded in healthier ideas of community. In the introduction to the Penguin edition of The Grapes of Wrath, Robert Demott acknowledges the novel’s lasting significance: “Wherever human beings dream of a dignified and free society in which they can live in right relationships with the environment and other human beings, and harvest the fruits of their own labor, The Grapes of Wrath is still applicable” (2006). Louis Owens (1948-2002) says The Grapes of Wrath operates across multiple narrative and hermeneutic planes, culminating in ideas of community: “On one level it is the story of a family’s struggle for survival in the Promised Land. On another level it is the story of a people’s struggle, the migrants. On a third level it is the story of a nation, America. On still another level, through the allusions to Christ and those of the Israelites and Exodus, it becomes the story of mankind’s quest for profound comprehension of his commitment to his fellow man and to the earth he inhabits.” In his final point – not necessarily the exact religion and tradition he speaks of – Owen identifies a Steinbeckian paradise that resonates with me. One that nurtures my admiration of, not just his prose, but his politics.

There’s humility in Steinbeck that’s absent from Thoreau.

There’s also a beauty to his prose and his commitment to storytelling that dignifies his tragic subject matter. Not unlike Melville’s intentions in Moby-Dick, Steinbeck regarded The Grapes of Wrath as “symphonic.” Its “intimate narrative and panoramic editorial chapters enforce the dialogic concept,” and its “salty language” and “catchy eyewitness quality,” and  its “vivid biblical, empirical, poetic, cinematic, and folk styles” demonstrate Steinbeck’s “tonal acuity” as well as his ear and eye for melding “experience and rhetoric, oral and literary forms” (Demott).

I’m partial to Of Mice and Men (lover of brevity that I am). You want to talk about the imaginative possession of a pastoral dream held by men living in quiet desperation? I challenge you to find a better example than that of George Milton and Lennie Small.

–          Joe

Birthday of the Internet before the Internet: on the 161st Anniversary of the British Publication of Moby-Dick



I like to think of Melville’s Moby-Dick as the Internet before the Internet.

If Melville lived today, and if his great novel had not yet been snatched from the spiritual miasma by some other author, young Herman may have Googled “Whale.” He, like me, would have waited 0.19 seconds for the great white search engine to return 118 000 000 results. Wikipedia. Youtube. Twitter. News. Blogs. NGOs. Myriad other sites. A vast and moving and still only partially known ocean of information and ideas. Melville could have cut and pasted each of the 118 000 000 sites containing some reference to “Whale” and accomplished something like his novel (like, but certainly less than). I mean, Moby-Dick is like a pre-Internet collection of stories, encyclopedic entries, cross-cultural allusions, and more and more that is not unlike what we get from the Internet, on any given subject. To use a term of the great Guy Davenport, Moby-Dick, like the Internet, is a thing of fantastic, enlightening, even frightening, “harmonic disarray.”

So thanks to Google for acknowledging the 161st birthday of it’s intellectual and methodological predecessor with this attractive “Google Doodle”:

161st anniversary of Moby-Dick

– Joe

Like a Snow Hill in the Air: on Moby Dick Big Read


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This exists and thank God for that: Moby Dick Big Read.

It’s pretty amazing and I’m more than excited about it. Moby Dick Big Read is an online project featuring each chapter of Moby-Dick read aloud by recognizable names: David Cameron (Prime Minister of the UK), Tilda Swinton (Actress extraordinaire, herself pale white and magnificent), and Caleb Crain (writer), among others. A new chapter will be posted daily. Daily!

That’s four months of Moby-Dick.

Here’s Ms. Swinton reading the first chapter:

Tilda Swinton Moby Dick (Soundcloud)

(Tilda Swinton reflecting on being Tilda Swinton)


– Joe

* I should also mention that the current banner is a cropped image produced by the great James Jean.