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.

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.)

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.

Research Round-up no. 2: the hodgepodge of American culture

I’m just getting going on writing this first chapter — I’m at that terrible beginning part where I can’t figure out what to say first — so I’m not researching as heavily right now.  Still, it’s nice to put some things together and remind myself why this project is fun.

One song

I chose this piece, a modern performance of an old-time banjo song, to correspond to the excerpt below about “negro melodists.”  Hugh Reginald Haweis names it as a song one might have heard by African-American performers abroad at the turn of the century.

Sometimes while reading Wharton, it’s easy to forget that these types of American culture were happening in concert with the more rarefied air of Renaissance art scholarship (like the Berensons did, below).

Two people

Bernard Berenson (1865 – 1959)

It’s kind of hard to imagine, but Renaissance art wasn’t always the hot tip when it came to collecting.  In fact, a market for Old Master paintings didn’t take off in the US until the early 1900s.  When it did, American art historian and attribution-poineer Bernard Berenson was perfectly poised to become the preeminent authority on the topic.  He helped Isabella Stewart Gardner grow her art collection; he was praised by William James for his manner of applying “elementary psychological categories to the interpretation of higher art”; and, importantly for my research, he served as friend, reader, and traveling companion to Edith Wharton.

Mary Berenson (1864 – 1945)

Born Mary Smith, Berenson’s wife was also an art historian.  According to Wikipedia, she is now thought to have helped Berenson write some of his influential books on Renaissance art.  Sadly, as happens all too often, she has been overshadowed by her husband and his memory.  Her writing appears to be entirely out of print, though Harvard has an extensive archival collection dedicated to her and her husband.

The daughter of Philadelphia Quakers, she had attended Smith College and then the Harvard Annex (later Radcliffe College) as one of its first eight students. She studied Berkeley, Hegel, and other philosophers, and recalled how once, after hearing the English art critic Edmund Gosse mention the “sacred word Botticelli” during a Harvard lecture, she looked at her brother, essayist Logan Pearsall Smith, “with eyes brimming with emotion and excitement,” and exclaimed: “Oh Logan! We are at the very centre of things!”

Diane E. Booton, in Harvard Magazine

Three lines

Madame de Trezac had lately discovered that the proper attitude for the American married abroad was that of a militant patriotism; and she flaunted Undine Marvell in the face of the Faubourg like a particularly showy specimen of her national banner. The success of the experiment emboldened her to throw off the most sacred observances of her past. She took up Madame Adelschein, she entertained the James J. Rollivers, she resuscitated Creole dishes, she patronized negro melodists, she abandoned her weekly teas for impromptu afternoon dances, and the prim drawing-room in which dowagers had droned echoed with a cosmopolitan hubbub.

— Edith Wharton, The Custom of the Country

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.

Research round-up no. 1: Edith Wharton and The Custom of the Country

The semester has really only begun, but I’m off to the races on my masters thesis.  I have a reading calendar that is rapidly filling up, a personal goal to write 2 pages every day, a thesis group that has already proven invaluable, and initial deadlines for each of my three chapters.

The first, which I’ve just started drafting, focuses on Edith Wharton’s 1913 novel The Custom of the Country.  I took a class on Wharton during my first grad semester, but it only scratched the surface of her extensive bibliography.  Now I’m getting a chance to dig a little deeper (though not much, seriously, she wrote so. many. things).  While it’s tangential to my argument about Wharton’s work, I’m really struck by her engagement with modernist culture, something that isn’t always clear in her novels.

One song

The 1913 Paris première of Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps has been well-documented; the crowd, offended by the modern music and strange dance style, rioted in the theatre.  The moment is now considered one of those turning points of the modern era.  (For an excellent discussion of the ballet and its relationship to modernism and the Great War, I highly recommend Modris Eksteins’s Rites of Spring.)   A long list of modernist culture-makers were associated with the production, either through Ballet Russes or by being in attendance.

But it wasn’t just the darlings of the avant-garde in the theatre that night; Wharton witnessed the ballet and the riots as well.  She noted in her journal that she found the performance “extraordinary.”

Two people

Henry James (1843 – 1916)

Wharton was close friends with James up until his death in 1916.  He famously encouraged her to “do New York,” but the shadow of his influence also hung over her writing for her entire career.  He visited her in Paris in 1908, while she was just beginning to work on Custom; while there, she convinced him to sit for this portrait by Jacques-Émile Blanche.

Edmund Wilson (1895 – 1972)

Wilson was an accomplished literary critic and famously kind of a dick.  In an essay seeking to do “Justice to Edith Wharton,” he described the main character of Custom as “the prototype in fiction of the ‘gold-digger,’ the international cocktail bitch.”  This phrase, and its attendent weird literary misogyny, inspired my thesis project.

Three lines

She wanted to be noticed but she dreaded to be patronized, and here again her hostess’s gradations of tone were confusing. Mrs. Fairford made no tactless allusions to her being a newcomer in New York—there was nothing as bitter to the girl as that—but her questions as to what pictures had interested Undine at the various exhibitions of the moment, and which of the new books she had read, were almost as open to suspicion, since they had to be answered in the negative. Undine did not even know that there were any pictures to be seen, much less that “people” went to see them; and she had read no new book but “When The Kissing Had to Stop,” of which Mrs. Fairford seemed not to have heard.

— Edith Wharton, The Custom of the Country

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.

A detective on Christmas: Dorothy L. Sayers’s Strong Poison

I blogged about a Christmas film noir, but I didn’t actually mean to read a Christmas detective story as well.  But Dorothy L. Sayers’s Strong Poison was calling out to me from the shelf where I’d stuck it, just above a collection of Poe’s mystery stories.  I actually bought the book several years ago in Atlanta, and I’d packed it up and moved it across the country with me, but I’d still never read it.

Well, I had tried once, when I originally purchased it.  But the first chapters are a bit slow, and my attention span was not great, so it returned to the shelf.  This time around, however, I pushed through the clunky opening and found myself totally taken with Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane.

The book begins at the end of a murder trial: a neat device for catching the reader up on the details quickly, but the voice of the stodgy judge is a bit much to wade through.  Luckily, he disappears as soon as the hung jury refuses to deliver a verdict as to whether detective novelist Harriet Vane poisoned her one-time lover with arsenic.  Wimsey has been present at the trial and really taken to Vane, who he knows didn’t commit the murder.  He vows to clear her name, find the real killer if he can, and then marry Vane.  She’s grateful for the first two but has some other ideas about the last one.

The Christmas aspect is actually minimal; with the retrial set after the winter holiday, Wimsey spends the Christmas season making his investigation (and trying to convince the Chief Detective Inspector to marry his sister already).  But Sayers uses the holiday setting to get in a few witty jabs:

“Great bore, Christmas, isn’t it? All the people one hates most gathered together in the name of goodwill and all that.”

Sayers creates Wimsey as a sarcastic but lovable aristocrat who has friends in all sorts of unexpected places, always ready to help him out when needed.  I particularly love his “Cattery,” the temp typist pool he maintains and sends off to work typing jobs/do recon on suspects.  In fact, all the secondary characters, who adore Wimsey and help him in his sleuthing, are wonderfully drawn and a joy to follow.

It’s worth noting that Sayers herself was a pretty badass lady, not unlike Vane.  She was one of the first women to take a degree from Oxford and was made a Baker Street Irregular.

Sadly, it looks like the next two Peter and Harriet books, Have His Carcase and Gaudy Night, are currently out of print.  I’ll be tracking down used copies as soon as I can, because I can’t wait to read more featuring the two of them.

Orlando & the frivolous necessity of making the home

I’m not actually writing about Orlando for my Woolf paper on the plastic arts and narratology, but I do keep coming back to this moment in the novel:

Never had the house looked more noble and humane.

Why, then, had he wished to raise himself above them? For it seemed vain and arrogant in the extreme to try to better that anonymous work of creation; the labours of those vanished hands. Better was it to go unknown and leave behind you an arch, a potting shed, a wall where peaches ripen, than to burn like a meteor and leave no dust. For after all, he said, kindling as he looked at the great house on the greensward below, the unknown lords and ladies who lived there never forgot to set aside something for those who come after; for the roof that will leak; for the tree that will fall. There was always a warm corner for the old shepherd in the kitchen; always food for the hungry; always their goblets were polished, though they lay sick, and their windows were lit though they lay dying. Lords though they were, they were content to go down into obscurity with the molecatcher and the stone-mason. Obscure noblemen, forgotten builders–thus he apostrophized them with a warmth that entirely gainsaid such critics as called him cold, indifferent, slothful (the truth being that a quality often lies just on the other side of the wall from where we seek it)–thus he apostrophized his house and race in terms of the most moving eloquence; but when it came to the peroration–and what is eloquence that lacks a peroration?–he fumbled. He would have liked to have ended with a flourish to the effect that he would follow in their footsteps and add another stone to their building. Since, however, the building already covered nine acres, to add even a single stone seemed superfluous. Could one mention furniture in a peroration? Could one speak of chairs and tables and mats to lie beside people’s beds? For whatever the peroration wanted, that was what the house stood in need of.

— Virginia Woolf, Orlando

Can one mention furniture indeed.

This is also not at all what I discussed with my undergrads this week when I taught a session on the novel; we spent the majority of the time instead on tone in the opening of the novel, close reading images and trying to draw links between it and Woolf’s other works.  But furniture, furnishing, the making of a home, is on my mind quite a bit lately, just as it was on Orlando’s at a certain point in the early days of his adult life.