29 December 2011

Kenneth Goldsmith in The Believer, October 2011

I'm a little late getting round to this article, but I think it's something I should make a note of as it's so challenging to our conception of literature. As indeed it's meant to be. The full title of the article in The Believer, including the subtitles, is 'Kenneth Goldsmith (Poet): What Happens when Sense is not Foregrounded as Being of Primary Importance: Some Books Better Thought about than Read: Finnegans Wake[,] The Making of Americans[,] The works of Kenneth Goldsmith'. Dave Mandl writes an introduction about Goldsmith, and then has an email interview with him.

Goldsmith has written books such as Soliloquy, which contains every word he spoke in a week; The Weather, which is a transcript of a radio station's weather reports over a whole year; and Day, which is the text of an issue of The New York Times retyped. You get the idea.

And that's what this is all about: ideas. Goldsmith calls himself a 'conceptual writer', and says he has a 'thinkership' rather than a readership: his books are evidently more or less unreadable, so their value is as thinking tools, or what Goldsmith calls ''pataphysical reference books', an expression that made me immediately think of Alfred Jarry and Oulipo, so I was hardly surprised to find Goldsmith enthusing over Michel Houellebecq enthusing over Georges Perec and Jorge Luis Borges, or to learn that he has established an educational resource called UbuWeb.

Goldsmith also works at the University of Pennsylvania, where he teaches 'poetic practice and the art of plagiarism'.

And the interview is here.

27 December 2011

Roland Camberton: Scamp (1950; repr. 2010)

A short time ago I wrote a few words about the recent (re-)publication of Roland Camberton's Scamp, which I've just read, and which I think deserves a comment of more than a few words.

Scamp was a novel with a contemporary story when it was first published in 1950, but today, with its rat-infested Bloomsbury hovels, its journalists with whisky flasks at the hip, its greasy spoon cafés, its politically incorrect talk, its war rationing hangover, its national service, its unwanted pregnancies, and its omnipresent fags and newspapers, it seems to belong to a very distant England indeed. It is a world where Bernard Shaw, James Agate and Cyril Connolly are figures of great importance.

If there'd ever been an English dream, this would be the flipside of it, a society of virtually unemployable losers, many of whom only half-heartedly try to make it as writers, have sex without emotional commitment, and whose idea of social networking is meeting for hours in the pub or the café to philosophize and talk of unrealizable dreams, often scrounging or conning at the same time. Although far less menacing — in fact decidedly cartoonish —the characters aren't so far removed from those of Patrick Hamilton , and the title Scamp indicates an essentially childlike as opposed to sinister nature, although this is in fact a kind of maguffin, being the title of a magazine that's never published.

John Minton's cover is revealing, and Iain Sinclair (in his Introduction 'Man in a Macintosh: Roland Camberton, The Great Invisible in English Fiction') certainly believes that the man depicted is a representation of Camberton (born Henry Cohen). This man is the only clearly drawn human, but focussed to the right of the drawing, behind an unnamed pub. It is perhaps early evening, and in the background are sketchy figures walking together. The man, though (maybe late twenties or early thirties, balding with stubbly chin), is alone and either deep in thought or unhappy. He has a sheaf of papers or a wad of magazines under his arm, and surely the main point here is the weight given to the background: the eye is drawn to the main detail of the man under the pub, who is disappearing bottom right, his head full of what he's leaving: the pub, the people, the streets, the noise, the conversation, the whole fantasy world. Leaving mentally or physically, or perhaps both?

Ivan Ginsberg, the 30-year-old main character in Scamp, is an under-published ex-short story writer who wants to be a literary magazine editor, his only problems being that he has to find the money, contributors and printer to do so. Like many of the other characters, he hasn't grown up, although he begins to do so at the end.

24 December 2011

Dianne Elizabeth Dostie Cole, ed.: Diary of Elizabeth Hussey Whittier (1836—1838) (2008)

The front cover of this booklet, published by Powwow River Books of Amesbury for the Whittier Home Association, shows a pen drawing of Elizabeth Hussey Whittier by Catherine Wingate Cameron, with an example of her handwriting as the background. The Introduction is by Frances C. Dowd, a former President of the Whittier Home Association who also transcribed the diary with no silent corrections.

The Introduction tells me several things of which I wasn't aware, such as Elizabeth publishing a small volume of poetry, and having several poems published in different magazines; her spending a few months in Pennsylvania with brother 'Greenleaf' (who was working for the Pennsylvania Freeman), which was the only time that she spent away from Amesbury; and that Elizabeth and Whittier returned to Amesbury after his office was burned in an apparent reaction against the anti-slavery movement.

The diary gives very interesting insight into the thoughts of Whittier's sister, into the mind of the Quaker, and to some extent into Whittier's own world, although far too much here is unexplained, and the reader must guess certain things or (far more often) remain ignorant. Footnotes would have been very helpful, as there are many references to abbreviated names, so who are these people? Even if they're not known by the editor, or if their identity is uncertain, then a note to that effect, perhaps with a suggestion, would have helped. For instance, maybe not many readers would know today that Elizabeth's reference to 'Mrs. Hemans' on page 4 is to the popular poet Felicia Hemans, although most people would probably have heard of a boy standing on a burning deck, so a footnote would have been informative. As it is, Hemans is not even mentioned in the Index.

Oh yes, the Index. Strings of words have been keyed in, run through an alphabetical program, and the poem names (in quotes) have floated to the top of the list like cream, leaving a list in perfect alphabetical order. Only, the purpose of an Index is to find the page(s) a reference refers to, but this Index refuses to work that way, unless by sheer coincidence.

Let's take at random, for example, the single Index entries 'Amkanoonaks', 'Mirick, B. L., Mrs.', 'Racoon Mountain', and finally 'Sophronia M' or ''M., Sophronia' if we want to be pedantic and doublecheck. The page numbers given for these entries, respectively, are 16, 26, 16, and 8 (that last number referring to both Sophronia entries). But if we look up these numbers, no such reference is on any of those pages. But like magic, if we add six pages to each of these numbers, they appear on pages 22, 32, 22, and 14 repectively. The numbered pages in the book begin at the page marked '1' (the beginning of Elizabeth's diary, which ends at the page marked '34') and end at the page marked '40', which is the final page of the Index. Logically, there should, in an Index that subtracts six pages, be no number above 28. But to take one example, there are four references to 'Amesbury', one of which is to page 29, which is a self-reference to the appearance of the town in the Index itself. So you just add six? Well, not quite: 'Campbell' should be on page 36, in other words page 40, but it's not there: we don't live in a perfect world, but this error could have been easily checked before publication.

I don't intend my comments to be taken very seriously, and I realize that the wonderful work for the Whittier Home Association is voluntary and an excellent job has been done transcribing what doesn't look very easy-to-read handwriting, but all the same an editor normally says a few words about the actual editing of a work, although there's nothing here. I have a large number of questions about the people alluded to in Elizabeth's diary, but unfortunately I don't have any answers.

22 December 2011

Kristin Bierfelt: The North Shore Literary Trail (2007)

Kristin Bierfelt's title The North Shore Literary Trail: From Bradstreet's Andover to Hawthorne's Salem only gives the briefest indication of the contents of this fascinating book, and although it only covers a small geographical area, it contains a large number of writers who have lived in this part of Massachusetts.

Over fifty writers are mentioned in eighteen towns or villages, and a number of posts I've made this year relate to graves, statues, houses, etc, discovered solely as a result of reading this book. Not only was I led to features of which I was previously unaware concerning famous writers, but I was also informed of writers of whom I hadn't heard, such as Alonzo Lewis, Vincent Ferrini, Harriet Prescott Spofford, John Marquand, Lucy Larcom, etc.

Although the subject of the book is literature, it's fortunate that the author stretches the term to a large extent at times because I don't know where else I'd have heard of Roger Babson's eccentric boulder carvings in Dogtown near Gloucester (except perhaps in Anita Diamant's novel The Last Days of Dogtown (2005)), or the fact that the The Scaffold's song 'Lily the Pink' alludes to Lynn resident Lydia Estes Pinkham's Vegetable Compound ('Medicinal Compound' in the song): a strongly alcoholic concoction said to have worked wonders for menstrual pains and menopausal problems that sold very well during the Prohibition years.*

This book is a must for anyone traveling in north-east Massachusetts who is even remotely interested in literature.

*There is a Lydia Pinkham Memorial Clinic in Salem, built by Pinkham's daughter in 1922, almost forty years after her mother's death.

John 'Ben' Pickard: Whittier and His Elizabeths (2007)

The title of this booklet — being a paper Pickard read at the Newburyport Literary Festival in April 2007 — appears to have been inspired by Whittier's poem 'The Two Elizabeths', which the poet read when Elizabeth Fry's statue was unveiled in Providence, Rhode Island. (The other Elizabeth was St Elizabeth of Hungary.)

The purpose of Pickard's paper is to discuss four Elizabeths in Whittier's life. I already mentioned his sister Elizabeth Hussey Whittier and his niece Lizzie (Pickard's grandmother, on whom he concentrates in particular) in my last post, but not his romantic attachments to the Quakers Elizabeth Lloyd Howell and Elizabeth Neall.

The only woman Whittier ever discussed marriage with was Elizabeth Howell, whom he thought the most beautiful woman he'd ever met. Whittier had met Howell when he was staying in Philadelphia. She had an interest in art and poetry and like Whittier was an abolitionist. Their friendship blossomed, but Whittier blew cold, quite possibly because he wasn't in a financially secure position for marriage, as it was only with Snow-Bound in the 1860s that he became so, by which time he was in his fifties. So Howell married someone else in 1853, although she became a widow a few years later, which was a cue for their relationship to florish again, although Howell's criticism of what she saw as the limited culture of Quakerism and her espousal of Episcopalianism led to the end of the romance.

Elizabeth Neall too was from Philadelphia, and her father Daniel had been tarred and feathered for his anti-slavery stance. She strongly embraced women's independence, and visited Europe as an anti-slavery delegate. Whittier wrote the poem 'To a Friend on Her Return from Europe' for her, but never spoke of love to her, and she too married someone else. There's an odd thing about writers and virginity in Massachusetts, and one thinks of Emily Dickinson, Henry David Thoreau, etc.

Unfortunately a few typos missed the editing process: for example, the front page title conflicts with the title-page's rather odd 'Whittier as a Local Poet', Whittier is called 'reknown New England poet', and Pickard is described as Whittier's 'great-grand-newphew'.

John 'Ben' Pickard: A House Becomes a Home: The Women of the Amesbury Whittier House (2007)

John 'Ben' Pickard, the author of this booklet, is the great-grand-nephew of John Greenleaf Whittier. The background on the cover is a photo of the wallpaper from the east attic of the Amesbury Whittier house.

Written for a talk which took place five years before the publication of Whittier and His Elizabeths and also published in the same year (2007) by the Whittier Home Association, this booklet (along with the other) is interesting in that it approaches John Greenleaf Whittier's life from a feminist point of view, foregrounding the women behind the poet rather than the poet himself. It is also appropriate in that Whittier himself was a feminist, although perhaps more in theory than in practice.

Whittier (then aged 29) moved with his family to Amesbury, Massachusetts in 1836, leaving the home of his birth at the farm in East Haverill (pronounced 'HAY-vrill') which is about eight miles away and had been in the family since it was built in 1688: after the death of their father and uncle who had kept the farm, neither Whittier nor his brother Franklin wanted to be farmers, and the women of the household were not suited to the work.

These women were the mother Abigail Hussey Whittier, the single aunt Mercy Hussey, and the younger sister, Elizabeth Hussey Whittier. Pickard describes the first two women as 'domestic caretakers' doing the cooking, cleaning, and making the clothes for the male of the family, the man who would never marry and would remain at the house until 1876, when he joined his Johnson cousins in Danvers, Massachusetts.

Mercy died in 1846. Elizabeth Hussey Whittier was a companion to the poet for many years, although her health suffered a great deal in the 1850s, and it was also a huge loss to him when his mother died in 1857.

The following year Franklin's 13-year-old daughter — also named Elizabeth Hussey Whittier, but generally referred to as Lizzie — joined the household initially as a schoolgirl, although her aunt's ailing condition in the early 1860s meant that Lizzie increasingly took on the household tasks, also becoming companion and secretary to Whittier. Elizabeth died in 1864, and Lizzie's marriage to Samuel Thomas Pickard (later Whittier's biographer) in 1876 necessitated Whittier's move to Danvers. He died in Hampton Falls, New Hampshire in 1892 at the age of 85, leaving much of his estate — including the house — to Elizabeth 'Lizzie' Hussey Pickard, who had been with him for several of his final weeks.

Although Ben Pickard's booklet stresses the vital importance of women in the Whittier household (and indeed by extension in many other 19th century households) it is also the story of the physical evolution of the house, the alterations it underwent through the decades, and the story of late 19th century political disagreements between the Whittier Home Association and the Elizabeth Whittier Club.

Maylis de Kerangal: Naissance d'un pont (2010)

Naissance d'un pont (lit. 'Birth of a Bridge') is on the surface about just that: the building of a bridge between the fictional Californian towns Coca and Edgefront. The dream of the Dubai-obsessed local mayor, the building of the bridge will in less than a year directly involve attempted sabotage (linked with a death), strong violence, strike action, accidental death, delay due to bird behavior, etc; indirectly, the effects are far more.

Maylis de Kerangal is interested in 'porosité', or porousness, the way things seep through to other things, which she shows not only in her characters (the resemblance between the apparent opposites Jacob and Diderot, for example) but in the words she uses: the technical language of the world of engineering merges seamlessly into the colloquial, and the spoken word — even in conversation — is not marked by punctuation but allowed to join in the narrative flow. And this flow sometimes goes on and on, with the use of very long sentences. So it's not surprising to learn that she was impressed by Mathias Énard's Zone, a novel consisting of only one sentence.

What is perhaps surprising, though, is that there is much humor. This can come in the form of the narrator's mocking repetition, as in 'John Johnson, known as the Boa'; it can come in the deadpan but chilling description of the way Soren previously walked out on his girlfriend: 'hardly has the bear entered the appartment than he turns the key in the lock with a feverish hand, shuts the door on the bear and the girl', which is retributively and laconically recalled in the way Soren (now known to be dead but the reason originally unclear) meets his end in the forest in Edgefront: 'There is a bear missing from the town zoo'; or it can come in an almost slapstick manner, as when Shakira joins the cranedriver Sanche — who is armed with a liter of Jack Daniel's, dry cakes and a CD player — in his cabin fifty feet up in the air for cramped sex.

Some of the names are playful too, as in the architect Ralph Waldo, or the materialistic building site boss Georges Diderot, or in the naturalness of Katherine Thoreau.

The bridge is where outsiders of many kinds meet, where history joins the present and the future, where a modern itinerant Lone Ranger becomes a kind of spaghetti western actor in the multicultural internet generation. One of the most interesting books I've read this year.

17 December 2011

Occupy Boston, Dewey Square Tent City, Massachusetts

Before we left Boston, Massachusetts, late October, this was the scene in Dewey Square. $45,000 in donations had been received, a library full of books given, and a giant Gandhi statue had been loaned to the group. There was a large quantity of free food, and the atmosphere was very positive and very friendly. I'll let the images speak for themselves.

Goodbye once more Boston.

Occupy London in Finsbury Square.

The Anne Sullivan fountain in the Helen Keller garden, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Literary New England #23

Down a small pathway off Brattle Street in Cambridge is the Helen Keller fountain with a small lion with water coming from its mouth. Keller explains the revelation that Anne Sullivan brought to her in The Story of My Life (1924).

On the brick wall at each side of the fountain is a plaque, one of which is in Braille.

The other is in English:

1900 — 1904'

Forest Hills Cemetery, Jamaica Plain, Boston, Massachusetts: Literary New England #22

Opened in 1848, Forest Hills Cemetery in Jamaica Plain to some extent rivals Mount Auburn in Cambridge, Massachusetts in terms of undulating grounds, twisting paths and lush vegetation. The number of writers is far less, although there are several of note.

The marker that includes Anne Sexton (1928—74).

And the inscription on the tomb.

Karl Heinzen's impressive monument stands on a hillock above other graves.

The bust.
The marker, in the upper case, of the man sometimes spelt in the lower case: E. E. Cummings (1894—1964).

He is buried in the Clarkes' lot, on his maternal side.

Finally, the jagged grave of Eugene O'Neill (1888—1953) hides in the bushes.

On the top is a small cairn with a number of pens.

Thornton W. Burgess in Sandwich, Cape Cod, Massachusetts: Literary New England #21

Although he spent most of his life in or near Springfield, Massachusetts (latterly in Hampden, where his former home is now the Laughing Brook Wildlife Sanctuary), the children's writer and conservationist Thornton W. Burgess (1874—1965) saw his birthplace in Sandwich, Cape Cod as his spiritual home: it is where his deep concern for wildlife was born.

The house was built in 1746, and Burgess was a direct descendant of Thomas Burgess, one of the first settlers in the town in 1637.

The museum is inside the Deacon Eldred House, and also serves as the Sandwich Chamber of Commerce Visitor Information Center. We couldn't see inside because it had just come to the end of the season.

A welcome sign at the side of the door gives an indication of a few of Burgess's many animal characters, such as Peter Rabbit, Reddy Fox, and Sammy Jay depicted here.

And unsurprisngly, representations of animals are present outside, such as this rabbit in the sage.

Or this metal squirrel.

Or this plaque of rabbits on the roof. The quotation 'The finest gift is a portion of thyself' is from Ralph Waldo Emerson.






I couldn't work it out, but then I didn't expect to.

Ditto the sundial.

Views of the back and side elevations.

There is also a 'small touch and smell' herb garden.

At the back of the house is Shawme pond, and a few yards further down is Dexter's Grist Mill, which was first operated in about 1654. It was restored in 1961.