Classical Antiquity Made Contemporary

I fell in love with retold tales of classical antiquity as a young teen, when I found a copy of Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Firebrand (1987) in Second Read Books, a tiny used bookshop tucked around the backside of downtown St. Augustine. Its story is the Trojan War from the perspective of Cassandra, the doomed seer who foretells the whole war but is never believed. (Bradley had previously published her hugely popular Arthurian retelling, The Mists of Avalon. I tried to read it a few years later but it never quite hooked me. The mid- to late 90s were heavy with Arthurian legend; I remember First Knight, the Merlin tv miniseries, and a small press Arthurian lesbian romance tucked away on a shelf somewhere that I read in snatches, no pun intended.)

In college we were required to read a lot of Greek and Roman literature (in modern translation); I wrote papers on Odysseus’s misogyny and the cycles of feminine violence in the Oresteia. I was assigned to read Anne Carson and soon devoured everything of hers I could find. Plainwater was the first and my favorite. In grad school I was assigned H.D. and was surprised to find her unmistakeable but unmentioned influence on Carson. Helen in Egypt begins with Stesichorus, as does Autobiography of Red, but Carson avoids invoking H.D., even as she writes of her contemporaries.

On a research retreat I fell in love with H.D.’s scrapbook, which juxtaposes ancient Greek statuary with photos of H.D.’s family and homes. I created an art book attempting to remix the images with the words of her poems; fragments from her early work printed onto onionskin paper overlay the later scrapbook collage images. (Someday I hope to digitize my version and publish on it, a companion to the Mina Loy interactive text adventure I made.)

A page from H.D.’s scrapbook

There’s no shortage of literature where women reclaim and retell the masculine epics and legends of antiquity. Mary Renault comes to mind; between 1956 and 1981 she published eight historical novels about ancient Athens and Alexander the Great. Madeline Miller has somewhat taken up Renault’s torch in the early 21st century. Her first two novels, The Song of Achilles and Circe, retell The Iliad and The Odyssey, respectively, from the alternate viewpoints of the heroes’ lovers.

Circe threw me wildly for a loop, as I found myself crying over Odysseus (forgiven, I suppose, for the misogyny I accused him of in college). Miller incorporates later material from Hesiod’s Theogony and the lost epic Telegony, though she judiciously ends the story before the old Greek cycle of violence can set in. The final family grouping, haunted by the memory of war-crazed Odysseus, touched me deeply. Reviewers have criticized Miller for her YA-like, romance novel-adjacent approach to her source material, but I’m in favor of it. I began with Bradley, after all.

Teaching Narrative as Technology

How long does it take to go from cave paintings to the invention of the novel? For most humans, those developments spanned about 30,000 years. My first-year students and I do it in 30 minutes.

This lecture is the official start to our semester on Women, Technology, and Film Adaptation, and it’s designed to help students approach both the novels and the films we’ll study as the course goes on. In part, it’s an overreaction to the contextless way my undergrad institution approached teaching literature; in part, it’s an overreaction to the systematic estrangement of STEM and humanities fields that plagues higher ed in general and my institution in particular.

animated gif of cave painting frames that show a bison running
Cave paintings animated by Marc Azéma

I want my students to know that technology affects literature in very specific ways. I want them to know that the first narratives were visual, and that moveable type impacted literacy, and that Shakespeare’s dick jokes are part of a turn towards vernacular narrative, and finally, that the novel is actually a very specific form that has only existed for about 300 years in English. These are the foundations on which we’ll build all of our work; even though my class isn’t about cave paintings or Shakespeare or 18th century novels, it helps us to have a shared understanding of these things as a background for encountering Hollywood studio era films and the novels from which they were adapted.

I borrow my working definition of technology from Rebecca Solnit’s book River of Shadows, about the man who made the invention of film possible:

A technology is a practice, a technique, or a device for altering the world or the experience of the world.

I use this definition—which is gloriously broad—to help students reframe their experience of literature. Narrative is a technology that has evolved and changed over time. Books are a technology, and they’re affected by what other kinds of technologies are available at a given moment. Ditto film. With this reframing, these “humanities” topics are suddenly relevant to the engineers and computer scientists sitting in my classroom.

Praxinoscope gif via Giphy

We’ll return to the visual narratives of cave paintings this week when we discuss the pre-history of film technology and play with zoetropes, praxinoscopes, and other optical toys during a hands-on demonstration. Later in the semester, we’ll visit the Museum of Papermaking on campus and learn about how this material science had profound effects on writing and publishing, leading, for example, to the early 20th century invention of the pulp novel, which in turn helped create the film noir. Finally, at the end of the semester, my students will create video essays that make an argument about how a specific technology has shaped film adaptation. I hope they’ll at least entertain the idea of examining the novel itself as a technology.

Further Reading:

Michael Schmidt’s The Novel: A Biography is huge and hugely entertaining; I asked on Twitter when people first learned about the invention of the novel, and I feel like it should have been earlier for all of us.

Vintage Movie Monday: Vampire Circus (1972)

These days, I mostly talk movies on The Film League podcast.  But some slip through the cracks or don’t get the time they deserve.  That’s the case with this gem of a Hammer film from 1972. It was directed by Robert Young, who is perhaps best known for directing the first series of Jeeves and Wooster, based on the P.G. Wodehouse novels and starring Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry.

But Vampire Circus is about as far from a comedy of manners as you can get. Instead, it revels in its Hammer horror style, packed full of lush but probably inaccurate set decorations, nudity, and lots of fake blood.

Set in a 19th century Austrian village named Shtetl (that’s Yiddish for town, or maybe it’s “Städtle,” German for “little town”), the film concerns the retribution taken on the villagers by a traveling circus of vampiric predators.  They’ve come in the middle of a plague quarantine, promising to entertain the residents with their carnival acts.  But the carnival turns into a rather more literal “farewell to the flesh” when the vampires begin preying on town children, using the blood to awaken the vampiric Count defeated by the townspeople 15 years earlier.

The circus proves too tempting a distraction for the quarantined town, who flock to see the show night after night.  They are astonished, but perhaps less surprised than they should be, at the strange and magical performances.  Caged animals transform into human dancers and acrobats, and a funhouse mirror becomes a deadly portal.

Soon the whole town is embroiled in the twin dramas of the mysterious murders and the suspicious performers.  The ensemble cast of this film is truly a joy to watch—despite minimal screen time for most of the actors, they convey rich and lived-in experiences.  Multiple small storylines play out amongst them, even as the carnage swells and takes over.

The town is saved, in the end, by a pure and devout teenaged couple who wield crosses against the unholy evil.  Dora defeats their dopplegangers, twin vampires who feel each other’s injuries, while Anton kills the revived Count.

Vampire Circus is streaming on Netflix right now, and I highly recommend it.  The movie is probably my new favorite Hammer film, as it successfully elevates the form above its too-campy elements and manages to elicit powerful sympathy for the large cast of characters.

Reinterpreting Jazz Age standards

I’ve been perusing Brooks E. Hefner‘s dissertation, “You’ve Got to Be Modernistic”: American Vernacular Modernism, 1910-1937, as part of the research for my second thesis chapter, and the preface introduced me to several songs from the era I’d never heard before.

Hefner writes about James P. Johnson and the composition that gave the dissertation its title, “You’ve Got to Be Modernistic.”  Johnson is mainly remembered for composing the “Charleston,” but as Hefner explains, singer Ethel Waters credited him with inspiring “all the hot licks that ever came out of Fats Waller and the rest of the hot piano boys.”

I dug around a bit to find out more about Johnson and came across this NPR story about another Johnson composition, “Yamekraw.”  It was inspired by one of my favorite jazz pieces, George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue.”

George Gershwin plays “Rhapsody in Blue”

As NPR explains,

After his friend George Gershwin had such success with “Rhapsody in Blue,” James P. Johnson thought he’d try his hand at writing a piece for jazz piano and orchestra. Johnson’s piece is called “Yamekraw, A Negro Rhapsody.” It has some of the same exuberent bubble and bounce you might know from the Gershwin and it makes a fascinating counterpoint to “Rhapsody in Blue.”

The songs make excellent mood-setters for my Jazz Age reading sessions.

Internet Archive has a small selection of other Johnson songs.

Treasure Hunting in the Public Domain: Scribner’s Magazine on “The Day of the Motor”

The February 1913 issue of Scribner’s Magazine had a special theme: The Day of the Motor. Along with articles on driving the Pyrenees Route and the mission of the automobile, it includes two very different gems of magazine writing.

The first is a compelling account of “Discovering America by Motor” written by Ralph D. Paine. The author and a companion tour New Hampshire (which he deems “not as backwards as is supposed”) in a car with only 3 of its 4 cylinders working. They encounter various other motor tourists on the way, and Paine contemplates the new freedoms that motor travel has opened up:

The man behind the steering-wheel has become the lord of distances. His horizon has immeasurably widened, the highway is made panoramic and belongs to him, and the satisfaction of living has sensibly increased.

The article is accompanied by grainy photos of automobile tourists all over the country, like the one above. Mostly, though, I was struck by how consistently readable the piece was, like a Longreads article from days of yore.

The second notable piece is “Steam-Coach Days” by Theodore M. R. von Kéler, a weird and wonderful speculation piece that seems straight out of a steampunk novel of this decade. He argues that the idea of a steam-powered engine in a coach-like vehicle has been around since the ancient Egyptians (!):

It is difficult—in fact, almost impossible—now to fix upon the exact year in which the idea of a coach propelled by steam first took shape in the human brain. The most recent discoveries during archaeological investigations and excavations in Egypt and other sections of northern Africa have tended to show that a steampropelled carriage of ingenious construction was, if not actually used, at least built in model form by one of the old Egyptians.

But even better than this wild tidbit are the whimsical drawings depicting steam coaches of all manner and style (all of which apparently actually existed):

Twelve years of Scribner’s Magazine has been made available online for free through the Modernist Journals Project. Further issues are available through Google Books. (I’m kind of obsessed.)

Vintage Movie Monday: Red-Headed Woman (1932)

This saucy pre-Code comedy was originally set to be adapted from Katharine Brush’s novel of the same name by F. Scott Fitzgerald.  When he took the picture in too serious a direction, the studio asked Anita Loos to step in and rewrite the script.

In Loos’s hands, the film became a raunchy and fun tribute to the social-climbing red-head at its center, played by (the usually blonde) Jean Harlow.  While I haven’t checked the original book, I’m fairly certain Loos added in the humorous opening in which Lil Andrews (Harlow) wryly name-checks Loos’s popular novel from seven years earlier: “So gentlemen prefer blondes, do they?”

Lil is a girl with a mission: to seduce Bill Legendre, the wealthy son of her boss.

Unfortunately for all parties involved, Bill is two things: already married but also powerless in the face of Lil’s fiery sexuality.  The script hints fairly baldly that Bill and his icy blonde wife, Irene, don’t have sex.  When Lil points her lips or shockingly exposed  her garters at him, he’s violently overcome.

After a series of adulterous encounters discovered by Irene, she divorces him and is left sleeping with her adorable puppy.

Lonely in the wake of the divorce, Irene decides to try to reconcile with Bill, only to find that he has married Lil in a blisteringly fast ceremony.  The marriage is doomed, however, both by Irene’s continued presence in their lives and the social outcast status that the divorce and remarriage have caused for the new couple.

High society can’t accept Lil, whose increase in status has made her snobby but not proper or decent. Because this is pre-Code, the film has some serious fun portraying Lil’s incorrigibly sexual behavior with increasingly racy scenes of her disrobing.

After several more rounds of love and betrayal and a snazzy dance scene to Lil’s own theme song, Bill ruins her chances to remarry by exposing the affair she’s having with her lover’s French chauffer.  She attacks the once-again reconciled Bill and Irene, shooting off a gun and causing Bill to wreck his car and nearly die.

But that’s not the end of it!  In any other film, one might expect Lil to be punished for her actions; instead, she ends the film married to an even richer (though uglier) old dude while also continuing her affair with the Frenchman, now employed by her husband.

As TCM notes,

The movie, and Harlow, achieved another kind of notoriety as well. Guardians of public morals throughout the country were incensed not only by the film’s frank treatment of sexuality but even more by the fact that Lil, an irredeemably bad girl who selfishly wrecks the lives of everyone around her, doesn’t get any kind of comeuppance or learn her lesson by the end of the story. Rather, she ends up rich, happy and accepted by high society without ever having to pay for her sins. Because of this, Red-Headed Woman is often cited as one of the motion pictures that brought about more stringent censorship under the Production Code, ushering in an era of enforced “morality” and coy dodges around sex for decades to come.

In the absence of the 1928 Gentlemen Prefer Blondes film (which has been lost), it’s fun to see Loos exercise her snappy wit and racy proto-feminist politics with yet another social climber who escapes punishment in the end.

Research round-up no. 3: Wharton in the Jazz Age

Edith Wharton with Bernard Berenson.

 I wrote a chapter!  It’s off with my advisor right now, but I did get some good feedback from my thesis reading group last night.  As such, I haven’t actually spent a lot of time this week researching.  Still, I do have a few things to share.

One song

Charles Ives composed this piece in 1906, and it has since been called “the first radical musical work of the twentieth century.”

The piece evokes an evening comparing sounds from nearby nightclubs in Manhattan (playing the popular music of the day, ragtime, quoting “Hello! Ma Baby” and even Sousa’s “Washington Post March“) with the mysterious dark and misty qualities of the Central Park woods (played by the strings). The string harmony uses shifting chord structures that are not solely based on thirds but a combination of thirds, fourths, and fifths. Near the end of the piece the remainder of the orchestra builds up to a grand chaos ending on a dissonant chord, leaving the string section to end the piece save for a brief violin duo superimposed over the unusual chord structures. (via Wikipedia)

I wish I had though to listen to this while I was writing!  I’ve yet to see any evidence that Wharton listened to Ives’s music, but much of his work is directly inspired by locales where Wharton also spent time.

Two links

Brown University and the University of Tulsa have partnered to digitize a huge catalog of modernist journals and magazines dating from 1890 to 1922.  The list includes wonderful things like The Little Review (which initially serialized Joyce’s Ulysses), PoetryBlast, and many, many more.  The preservation scans have also been made into PDFs and are available to download for free.  You can load up your e-reader or harddrive with free early 20th century poetry and fiction goodness, in its original context.  I got really excited because the project includes Scribner’s Magazine, where Edith Wharton’s The Custom of the Country was serialized in 1913.  (I used the materials to make a case about the narrative gaps and elisions in the novel, most of which do not fall between the serial breaks.)

As it’s relevant to both Wharton’s novel The Mother’s Recompense (which I’m still finishing) and my next chapter subject, Anita Loos’s Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, I was fascinated to see this Burton Holmes film about mid-town Manhattan in the 1920s.

Three lines

Anne had left her, and Mrs. Clephane, alone in her window, looked down on the new Fifth Avenue.  As it surged past, a huge lava-flow of interlaced traffic, her tired bewildered eyes seemed to see the buildings move with the vehicles, as a stationary train appears to move to travellers on another line.  She fancied that presently even little Washington Square Arch would trot by, heading the tide of sky-scrapers from the lower reaches of the city…

— Edith Wharton, The Mother’s Recompense (1925)

Further adventures

For a random assortment of photos, quotes, video, and other items tangentially related to my thesis, check out nonmodernist on tumblr.

And as always, you can follow all my grad school adventures in real-time via the “grad school is forever” tag on tumblr.

The limits of “sympathy”: Franzen on Wharton

Without sympathy, whether for the writer of for the fictional characters, a work of fiction has a very hard time mattering.
So what to make of Wharton, on her hundred and fiftieth birthday? There are many good reasons to wish Wharton’s work read, or read afresh, at this late literary date. You may be dismayed by the ongoing underrepresentation of women in the American canon, or by the academy’s valorization of overt formal experimentation at the expense of more naturalistic fiction. You may feel that, alongside the more familiar genealogies of American fiction (Henry James and the modernists, Mark Twain and the vernacularists, Herman Melville and the postmoderns), there is a less noticed line connecting William Dean Howells to Fitzgerald and Sinclair Lewis and thence to Jay McInerney and Jane Smiley, and that Wharton is the vital link in it…

But to consider Wharton and her work is to confront the problem of sympathy.

— Jonathan Franzen, “A Rooting Interest: Edith Wharton and the problem of sympathy” [subscription required]

A case of perfect timing?  Wharton’s 150th birthday has ensured that I have plenty of up-to-the-minute criticism to fight against in my thesis.  While I absolutely agree with most of the middle of this long quote (I am indeed dismayed, etc.), my chapter on Wharton is predicated on the thorny argument that negative affect (i.e., the frustration or irritation at the text that prevents “sympathy” in the reader), at least in The Custom of the Country, is exactly why that novel is still considered to “matter” today.

Without wasting my day typing up a longer discussion here (sorry, saving that for my thesis itself), I should say that my major problem with Franzen’s argument rests with the overwhelming subjectivity of most of his terms, including “matter” and “sympathy.”  I don’t think it’s a stretch to assume that fiction “matters” to me for very different reasons than other readers, and that any “sympathy” I feel for a character will depend at least somewhat on my race, gender, class standing, and personal history.

Vintage Movie Monday: Blondie of the Follies (1932)

Blondie of the Follies is the story of two girls living in Depression-era New York who escape poverty by going on the stage and then becoming kept women.  How scandalous!  This pre-Code film opens with an all-out slap fight between its female leads (played by Marion Davies, who also produced the film, and Billie Dove in her last film role).  From there, it moves on to depict heavy drinking and child neglect as part of life in a poverty-stricken New York tenement.

For all the glitz and glamor of the stage, this is actually a fairly dark film about the situation of women during the Depression.  It seems a far cry dialogue-writer Anita Loos’s earlier works like the snappy Gentlemen Prefer Blondes or even the lavish silent film Intolerance.

As one character outright states: “This big gay life isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, is it?”

I do have to agree with Laura, who felt, “At 91 minutes the film does go on a bit too long, with Blondie and Lottie fighting and making up repeatedly, but it has a number of striking sequences, particularly in the early going.”

The scene that sparked my interest the most features a party performance of a song spoofing director Edmund Goulding’s other 1932 film, Grand Hotel.  “One look at that guy Barrymore and you’re out!”