PNC Broadway at Kentucky Center for the Arts presents Hamilton (2019)

You already know I love the soundtrack and concept. I felt so lucky to get to see this production in Louisville, Kentucky, with a friend of mine.

Jefferson in Hamilton (photo credit)

A few thoughts of my own here, and then I’ll respond to some observations from Pops.

I found every moment of this performance thrilling. I came in so heavily invested in and in love with the show as I knew it, from the soundtrack and from videos I’d watched online of other productions – I know this made me both harder to impress (because each actor was being held up to another actor’s interpretation) and easier (because I had already bought in). I think I had a fixed grin for several numbers; then when people started getting heartbroken and dead, I felt those things deeply, too. We had impressive vocal performances as well as acting throughout; it’s a blockbuster. I agree with Pops’s comment that some familiarity with the lyrics is helpful in appreciating their richness, depth and cleverness; don’t miss any of these lines!! but with my thorough study beforehand, I got a lot out of this. My admiration for Lin-Manuel Miranda and the whole production was confirmed, expectations satisfied. I still wish I could have seen the original cast. But this was amazing, outstanding, and something few people get to see (those ticket prices, whew $$$). I’m overjoyed.

My date (who is a novelist) and I talked some about the characters we appreciate most. Hamilton is a big one – the show is definitely built around the idea of his being a complicated, sympathetic, fascinating guy – and I find Burr a close second. He is the more tragic figure, I think, what with his final ambitious leap and disappointment, and his fatal mistake and instant regret. I enjoyed the comedy of Jefferson, and the gravitas of Washington. My date and I agreed that while Eliza was performed beautifully, Angelica is by far the more interesting and complex character, something of a tragic figure herself; that seems to be the nature of their true roles in history, though, and each actor beautifully performed her role as written.

One thing I hadn’t realized was how little script there was in addition to the soundtrack that I already knew so well – in other words, the whole story is sung; there is very little dialog. The notable exception is the news of John Laurens’s death: seeing that shared onstage, I finally understood why I’d been confused by the soundtrack on this point! No plus or minus here, just good news for fans of the soundtrack: you’re getting pretty much the whole thing. I guess I find it an interesting artistic choice on Miranda’s part. Everything in song!

A difference from the soundtrack and videos: our version of Burr (Alexander Ferguson) was a much slighter and less burly, macho man. The rest confirmed previous impressions. Mulligan and Jefferson each had their own swagger, and Jefferson onstage gets an infusion of pure silliness which was delightful to watch, and I think an important element toward the story – he was the comedic influence, and a foil in other ways as well for Hamilton. Hannah Cruz as Eliza was powerfully voiced, and I dug her haircut which was decidedly modern. And don’t let me pass up mentioning Peter Matthew Smith as a hilarious and beautifully sung King George.

The set was apparently simple, although it had a number of moving parts (not stationary as Pops reports the SF one); set changes (including furnishings coming on and going off) were part of the choreography, which was very smooth. The ensemble of backup singer-dancers made a definite contribution. Each actor filled their role nicely, although Burr was the biggest change. Funny Pops mentioned Van Jones – that man at least physically matches the original Broadway’s Burr much better than ours did.

In rereading Pops’s comments: I did not watch our audience very closely, I’m afraid. But my impression was that it was pretty white, and older than you noted yours. Also not rowdy or terribly involved; at Jefferson’s big entrance he had to ask for more applause (which he got, in moderation). SF has more pep than Louisville?

As far as Pops’s note about politics being mostly in casting rather than lyrics: this is true for the most part, and I appreciate that, sort of understated and unavoidable at the same time. (Funny story: after immersing myself in this play beforehand, I at one point found myself double-checking the appearances of some of these historical figures, wondering, were they brown? Silly question, of course – the powerful figures of American history are absolutely white – but that’s how involved I got in this play, that it let me imagine an alternative.) But! one notable exception would be repeated reference to the power and talent of immigrants. I love these lines.

Funny that Pops mentioned having seen the #2 Hamilton actor – I don’t see how I’d know such a thing, except that when I went looking for photos to accompany this review, I couldn’t find any of our Hamilton (Edred Utomi) in his role. I also can’t find any other Louisville Hamilton (which is why there is a picture of our very funny Jefferson [Bryson Bruce] at the top of this post instead). Hmm. No complaints about Utomi at all, though – I think he embodied the character perfectly. As I’ve mentioned above, Burr was the only one who didn’t feel quite right in his role; but I think that’s just because I had an impression in my head going in, and not the actor’s fault for having a different interpretation. The double-edged sword of my familiarity, is all.

Clearly I had a wonderful time. I’d do it again in a heartbeat. If I were made of money, I’d go see multiple productions of this genius play. If you can get in, do go see Hamilton wherever you have the chance.


Rating: 10 coattails.

guest review: the Orpheum Theatre presents Hamilton (2019), from Pops

Some months ago now, my parents went to see Hamilton in San Francisco (lucky them!), and I am now sharing with you Pops’s remarks – because the next post you see here will be my own response to another Hamilton production, 2300 miles away. Briefly, then, here’s Pops.

The audience was surprisingly white; guess I shouldn’t be surprised given the price and the world-class tourist destination of San Francisco.

I was impressed there were so many teens with families, young people, and couples; there is a cross-generational attraction.

It was like a rock concert: excitement building just waiting; with the first chord of music, they cheered and hooted like these were rock idols; the conductor was obviously pacing the opening song to allow for applause and cheering, so we didn’t miss too many opening lyrics.

The stage set was huge, simple, stationary and visually rich to my eye, smacking of heavy-timbered construction, shades of dark brown; it was open, no curtains, enticing the awaiting crowd; the show began with Aaron Burr simply striding out on stage and letting loose!

The talent on stage was overpowering; wonderful, top to bottom; the audio system was good, and the powerful music will move you; but the rapid fire lyrics were still sometimes lost to individual diction or presentation; good to be familiar!

It strikes me that the ‘politics’ of this production are largely in the ‘meta’ of presentation, not so much the content of lyrics: i.e. diversity of skin color, musical style, physical character portrayal, etc.

The cast presented a broad palette of skin color; very few racial or ethnic stereotypes appropriate here; it was wonderful how that quickly faded to background as each character established their identity with other features.

The acting adds so much to the songs! Characters were sometimes surprising as fleshed out by actors, with body language and expression adding so much; good seats up front paid off; so many of these ‘familiar’ historical ‘founding fathers’ were so different as portrayed, Jefferson especially (as a buffoon!); George Washington retained the most tradition I thought, with great gravitas; I thought our Aaron Burr was by far the powerful character, as portrayed by a handsome man who I thought to be a doppelganger for Van Jones, if you know him.

There is great dancing too! Again, totally missed listening to only audio; it’s fun how the ensemble women also play male or ambiguous gender roles in other scenes.

We saw the relatively inexperienced #2 Hamilton actor, and he was great; I suppose the #1 is saved for weekends – he has a much longer and showier background including a Broadway tour. One wonders about different interpretations…

Act 1 is all upbeat, high energy, uplifting; the shorter Act 2 brings the steady decline to denouement, like a Shakespearean tragedy; it’s a sad ending – no attempt to sugar-coat history.

I’ll be responding to these thoughts in my own review. It was so fun to get this email and whet my own considerable appetite for the same show…

movie: Coal Miner’s Daughter (1980)

This biopic centers on country legend Loretta Lynn, the daughter of (yes) a coal miner in Butcher Holler, Kentucky. I was recently motivated to track it down in part by that Kentucky music issue of Oxford American.

First, the superficial bits: I am impressed with how well this cast resembles the characters they play. Sissy Spacek as Loretta, Tommy Lee Jones as her husband, Doolittle “Mooney” Lynn, and Beverly D’Angelo as Patsy Cline offer remarkable likenesses. There is less to go on with Ted Webb, Loretta’s father, but Leon Helm did a fine job with that role. (IMDB’s trivia section claims, “Loretta Lynn is said to have fainted when she saw Levon Helm in full make-up and wardrobe, because of his amazing resemblance to her real father.”) Phyllis Boyens-Liptak as Clary, Loretta’s mother, reminded me most of Dorothea Lange’s “Migrant Mother.” All the acting struck me as more than adequate. Spacek’s Loretta is somehow both quaking and fiery: she alternates between terror and resolute defiance. Jones is charismatic and frightening. I felt drawn in and engaged by this movie – forgot I was watching actors at all.

The relationship between Mooney and Loretta made me plenty uncomfortable. In the movie, she is 13 years old when they marry; Rolling Stone says she was 15, but this is still disturbing, just to a slightly different degree. On their wedding night, in the movie, he rapes her. The next morning, he hits her for the first time. I did not enjoy watching this. But if this is the true story (and the movie is based on Loretta’s autobiography, so we are to take it as such – at least as close to fact as autobiography ever is), I can agree not to look away. This aspect reminded me of Urban Cowboy, but that fellow-1980 movie of abusive honky tonk relationships does not have the stamp of “truth” on its side, so I consider its offense a little worse, at least from the one angle.

Anyway. Nobody said this movie would be about everybody doing the right thing. It’s a movie about real people, at least ostensibly. Let me say a little more about the “truthiness”: this is a biopic, based on life, via an autobiography, with a co-author, of a celebrity, who has some interest in promoting an image her fans will appreciate. (In that Rolling Stone piece, she and her publicity team are quoted as basically falling back on that stereotyped Southern lady’s coyness about age.) So, based on a real life as represented by the woman who lived it. I’m not trying to be hard on Loretta. These are generalizations, not specific to her. None of us has infallible memory, and celebrity has been known to distort, too. While Loretta and Mooney come off in this movie as messy and imperfect, they are certainly also relatable and sympathetic; this is a classic rags-to-riches story where we root for the underdog. It’s arguably easy on its stars. I figure this movie is fact-adjacent.

I did get involved with it. I cared about the characters. I felt Patsy’s death, and Loretta’s several crises; I was both very angry with Mooney and understood Loretta’s attraction. It was visually pleasing. The music was (of course) excellent, and Spacek and D’Angelo sang their parts throughout, which is impressive. Long story short, this was well worth my time; I can only imagine the nostalgia it holds for viewers who are either from an Appalachia recognizable here, or big Loretta Lynn fans (or both). I’m not the former, and only a moderate fan, but it was a good enough time.


Rating: 7 pots of food.

did not finish: Silver, Sword & Stone: Three Crucibles of the Latin American Story by Marie Arana

Disclosure: I read an advanced reader’s edition.


This was to be a Shelf Awareness review, but I didn’t find enough to appreciate. Silver, Sword & Stone attempts a hugely ambitious project: a history of Latin America (South and Central) across much of human settlement, from pre-European contact through the present. Marie Arana wisely acknowledges that such a comprehensive history is too big a goal (certainly, to achieve in these 366 pages, plus notes), but still she takes on a lot. In her interpretation, three elements make up the chief themes and through-lines for this history. Silver stands in for mineral exploitation of the land and its indigenous peoples: silver, gold, tin, copper, and other metals. Sword represents violence, or rule by the powerful. And Stone is religion. I read parts one and two, so I can’t tell you much about Stone.

There were a few reasons that I quit. For one thing, the writing: Arana has a great fondness for adjectives, sticking one to just about every noun; she is not quite so thorough with adverbs, but it was enough to irk. Many of these modifiers are superlatives: benighted, saintly, and (one of her favorites) brutal. Not only manifest, but ‘very manifest.’ Feeble, irrepressibly genial, hellish, cataclysmic, dire. When everything is absolutely the most ever, the effect of all of it dims. Also, the section on Sword, or the violence that has plagued so much of Latin American history, feels like a judgment on the people of this massive region – both pre- and post-European contact: they are just inclined to violence, to brutal acts, to power and subjugation by force. It made me a little uncomfortable because it’s a negative stereotype that’s too often used against people of Latin American descent (native and white/European, and the inevitable mix of the two). I am also a little uncomfortable arguing against the conclusions here, especially because Arana is herself of Latin American descent, and I am not, and I usually try not to correct people about their own in-group conclusions. This is part of why I didn’t write a review for the Shelf. But here on my blog, I can only say, some of these broad-stroke statements made me uncomfortable.

On the plus side, I appreciate Arana’s strategy for bringing immediacy to this historical work. Each section stars a modern-day Latin American whose experiences represent and make specific some of the broader story she tells. Silver: Leonor Gonzáles picks through rocks on a high Andean peak in Peru, searching for gold, scrabbling a hard living as have generations before her. Sword: Carlos Buergos had a rough childhood in Cuba, was sent by Castro to fight in Angola for the Communists, then imprisoned for butchering horse meat and trying to escape, then sent to Florida as an undesirable. Stone: a priest, although of course I did not read that far. It’s a good plan, and fairly well executed here. Arana’s use of these contemporary characters indeed gives context and immediacy. The history bits can get a little general. She has something of a tendency to repeat herself, restating and rephrasing certain points, sometimes offering different (contradictory) numbers in the second go-round; but these are hopefully errors that will be caught in a final round of edits. Recall, this is a pre-pub reader’s edition. This one had more errors (grammar, usage, punctuation as well as factual contradictions) than I’m accustomed to seeing, but one is supposed to trust that all gets corrected in the final copy.

I think there’s a lot of good research to appreciate here – my copy has nearly 100 pages of notes. Arana has done some good work of interpretation, and she makes some strong arguments about recurring threads in Latin American history. Her use of representative contemporary stories to illuminate larger themes is a wise strategy. But there were some stylistic issues that I couldn’t get past. If anyone gets through the final published version, I would love to hear about it. But this one’s not for me at this time.


(I read two-thirds, so I’ll go for it)
Rating: 4 brutalities.

movies: When They See Us (2019) and The Central Park Five (2012)

I was keyed up for the release of When They See Us as a Netflix original miniseries at the beginning of June. (I’m treating it here as a movie, especially because “limited series” seems like such a downplay for a serious work of art and social commentary.) I viewed the four episodes in three evenings, rushing through, feeling both addicted and horrified, unable to look away. I thought I was prepared for the subject matter, but I was shocked beyond expectations.

The show handles events from 1989, when five boys (four Black, one Puerto Rican and Black) were arrested for the brutal rape and beating of a white woman jogging in Central Park. Their names are Raymond Santana, Yusef Salaam, Kevin Richardson, Antron McCray, and Korey Wise. Although there was no evidence linking them to the crime, and although their confessions were full of holes and inconsistencies and signs of police coercion, they were found guilty. The four younger boys, ages fourteen to fifteen, were sentenced to between five and ten years. Korey Wise was sixteen, and received ten to fifteen, entering adult prison directly. In 2002, another man in prison for a series of rapes, Matias Reyes, confessed to the crime, and Korey (still incarcerated) was released, and all five men’s convictions were vacated.

It’s a terribly painful story to see unfold. On the April night in 1989, we see a large group of boys running through Central Park and acting out. They push at and harass bicyclists. They beat up a man. It’s easy to see how things escalate: boys roughhousing, and then some of them take it a step too far; imagine yourself one of those boys. You’re not responsible for the actions of those you’re with; you don’t even know all of them. It turns out that the jogger was raped in the same park on the same night, beaten within an inch of her life. Three of the boys who would become known as the Central Park Five were arrested that night. The next day, police came looking for Yusef Salaam. His friend Korey was with him when they take him in, and agreed to come along, just for moral support. In an ugly-ironic twist, Korey would serve the longest sentence for this crime in which none of the Five had any involvement.

It’s unsurprising that When They See Us knocks it out of the park with Ava DuVernay as creator, co-writer and director. Under her guidance, we see the boys running through Central Park. We see them picked up by police, and interrogated without parents present for hours and hours, without bathroom breaks or food; we see them pushed around, threatened, and coached through their false confessions. We see them in court and then in prison; we see them get out and hug their families and try to put their lives back together. We see Reyes confess to the rape. I am deeply impressed by the acting performances given by both the young actors (portraying the teenaged boys) and adults. I am horrified, over and over again.

I’m glad (well, that’s a weird word) to see the story of Korey Wise’s sister given air time, too: Marci was a trans woman murdered while he was incarcerated, who we meet only through flashbacks, as he weathers solitary confinement by living in a dream world largely starring this much-loved older sister. The story of a murdered Black trans woman is unfortunately common still today, and Marci deserved this coverage. She is beautifully played by Isis King.

I was also intrigued to meet the very sympathetic (in both senses) character of Roberts, a white prison guard who goes out of his way to be kind and generous to Korey, even holding him in an embrace when he finds out about Marci’s death. Roberts does not appear to come from real life (go figure). He was a sweet departure, but his totally fiction existence feels like a final driving-home of the horror of this true story.

I find the title interesting, too. I can think of several ways to follow this phrase, from ‘when they see us, they only see one thing/they think they know us,’ to ‘when they see us, then, finally, we’ll get justice,’ in the sense that we mean when we say it feels good to be seen. The story is so clearly about racism, about the way in which these boys, these children, were handled as proxy for everything that the world feared about Black men in 1980s New York. A white woman was raped, and they came for the Central Park Five just like they came for Emmett Till. And they were just babies: that’s one of the advantages of seeing and not just reading about this story, seeing the faces of these boys and realizing how very young they were.

I think this was everything it needed to be. As a crime drama, it’s gripping and moving. As social commentary, it’s thorough in its criticisms: the cops and prosecutors demonize themselves through their actions. I wept more than once. It’s also a visually impressive piece of art – this is where I’d normally call it visually pleasing, but of course that’s the wrong adjective – it’s full of expressive images, from the wide-angle view of boys in the park to the interrogation rooms and prison cells, and expansiveness of the outdoors to a man freed. I am still recovering emotionally from this story. Well done, DuVernay and full cast.

After feeling so affected by this show, I went looking for more, which led me to the documentary covering the same events from seven years earlier. The Central Park Five did much of the same job as the Netflix series, but with original footage and the perspectives of the men looking back from years later. Necessarily, it offered a less complete view of past events, because it stuck to the footage available; we don’t see police hit or threaten or coach the boys’ confessions, obviously, but we see the taped confessions, and we see the faces of the five boys and, later, men themselves. (Antron McCray allowed the use of his voice and not his image, as an adult.)

There was not much more of the story to be gained here, then, but an advantage in seeing it come from the people actually involved. I appreciated seeing what each character looked like, in comparison to the actor(s) who played them. I enjoyed seeing period footage of New York in general, too. I think it’s probably a good documentary, but it suffers some by comparison to When They See Us, which has the obvious advantage of being able to show more – whatever DuVernay wants to depict – and more dramatically. Having the two together feels like the right final call, of course, for the viewer wanting to explore this subject matter. I’m very impressed with both.

As a final remark, I want to say that I have a friend who has come into personal contact with Linda Fairstein, the evil, racist prosecutor in this story. This friend had her own horrible experience, which upholds what we learn about Fairstein here. Friend, I am sorry again for what happened to you. We’re decades late, but I’m glad everybody’s now talking about her and holding her responsible for some of her actions. Fairstein has enjoyed a career as a crime novelist until just recently: following a social media campaign, her publisher, Dutton, a Penguin Random House imprint, has ended the relationship. Small progress.


Rating: an average 8.5 years for these two fine films.

shorts by Cather; Sandor; Wheeler; Irving; Chesnutt; Maren; and Bourne of National Geographic (and links followed, etc.)

Whew, a long one today – sorry, folks, but I’ve been reading.

Because I’m not busy enough (ha) I’ve been reading a few short prose pieces here and there. Some of the following come from the Library of America’s Story of the Week (an email you can sign up for for free, if you have tons of free time or are a glutton like me). One I found languishing in a file on my computer. The internet, and friends’ referrals, account for the rest.


Willa Cather’s “A Death in the Desert” was a Story of the Week, viewable here. I found it a moving story, but much more so with the context included, about Cather’s devotion to a composer who died young. As the Library of America points out, the fact that this story was published in three versions, each subsequently edited and shortened, makes it an excellent opportunity to study editing for length (if you were to go find all three). There’s something Victorian in the manners and fainting emotions in the story that is less compelling and relateable for me personally, though. I’m glad to have learned a bit more about Cather, but it’s not my favorite thing I’ve read this month.


Marjorie Sandor’s “Rhapsody in Green,” however, blows my mind. (This was the one found on my hard drive. Originally published by The Georgia Review and viewable here, if you sign up for a free account.) It is a very brief lyric essay about, yes, the color green. Sandor evokes so much via this color, and her search for an unachievable shade: color, we might think, is a visual element, but she uses touch, smell, and taste as well. On its face about this color she can’t find, this essay is also a glancing view of the narrator’s life story, at least in a few relationships and geographical locations. There are four references (in less than three pages) to a time “I fell in love when I shouldn’t have.” It is a brave and risky move to so emphasize an event that she never explains further. As we writing students say, this one would have been destroyed in workshop. But I love it, this level of tantalization, and her bold implication that no, we don’t need to know any more about it than that. There are also two references to “a/my friend who puts up with such eccentricities.” I love this epithet, this characterization, and in both cases – this, and the “fell in love when I shouldn’t have” – I appreciate the use of an intentional echo to good effect. Also, nothing I’ve said here begins to get at the loveliness, the lyricism and sensual intimacy, of Sandor’s writing. Do go check this one out.


Disclosure: Dave Wheeler is my editor at Shelf Awareness, and a friend.

I have done a poor job of keeping up with Dave’s work, and recently returned to see what I’d missed, particularly in his essays, which impress me so. I am gradually catching up now – you can see his published essays here (and more in other links on that page). And I love a lot of what Dave writes: I appreciate the short, dreamy, feeling quality of “Science for Boys”, and the inquiring mind exposed in “Death and Its Museum”. But I think my favorite essays of those I’ve read so far deal with art, and how Dave takes it in. “Two Men Kissing” and “Some Holy Ghost” each offers so much, and I’ve forwarded them to many friends.

Today, I am very pleased by “A Moment Spins on the Axis of You: The Fourth Dimension of Yayoi Kusama’s ‘Infinity Mirrors'”. Here Dave encounters Kasuma’s installation, in particular, and the grand scale of its claimed subject. But even more than the named artwork, he considers what it means to wait – for art, for anything – and what contribution waiting, or time, or the audience experience, may offer. I appreciate his voice: he speaks with authority about his own experiences, but with a humbleness as regards the world of art criticism; he can be playful even as we feel he is serious. And of course I recognize myself when he writes, “As a lifelong reader, I have cultivated a sharp sense of when I can quit a book without worrying that I have missed something of importance. As a wide-eyed novice to visual arts, I am less assured.” I think I feel something like the same thing when I try to see my own reactions to visual art: I don’t even know what I don’t know.

Perhaps recognizing myself in Dave is part of recognizing Dave, someone I know personally and enjoy talking to, however infrequently we get around to it. And maybe that enjoyment is inextricable from my appreciating his writing. Maybe you want to help me test this: go check out Dave’s work and let me know what you think.

Good, right?


Washington Irving’s “Rip Van Winkle”, another Story of the Week, was engaging enough in its descriptive power; I was interested in getting a better grasp on one of those legends that’s in our collective consciousness whether we’ve read it or not (I don’t believe I had). The misogyny in the treatment of Dame Van Winkle, and the cursory treatment of all the women in the story (none of whom, if memory serves, had names), rankled. I’m not sorry I took the time, but it wasn’t a highlight, or anything.


Charles W. Chesnutt’s “The Bouquet”, on the other hand, was both lovely and harrowing. (I went ahead and followed this link to a Wiley Cash article in Salon, where he argues for Chesnutt as genius, and I don’t disagree.) If you want to feel gutted by our national heritage where race is concerned – well, none of us does, but I feel it’s important we don’t look away, either – give this short story a try. It has a surface on which it can act as a sweetly sad and simple tale, but its depths are significant.


Disclosure: Mesha Maren regularly serves as guest faculty at West Virginia Wesleyan College in my alma mater MFA program. I consider her a friend.

I was deeply impressed with Mesha’s recent essay in Oxford American, titled “West Virginia in Transition”. She moved away as a young, closeted, queer woman, and upon moving back, she investigates the experiences of her counterparts: queer youth growing up twenty years later in her own hometown. She muses on the ways in which their lives are different and the ways in which they’re similar. It’s a story that’s important to me, because both queer communities and Appalachian ones are much on my mind. I’m glad topics like this are getting bandwidth. But also, as anyone who knows Mesha’s work will expect, it’s a gorgeously written story. “The way these ridges and hollows both cradle and cleave.” Beautifully done, and highly recommended.


Finally, my father sent me a link to this story from National Geographic: “Clotilda, ‘last American slave ship,’ discovered in Alabama.” Joel K. Bourne, Jr. brings us up to date on the recent confirmation that Clotilda has been identified where she was burned and scuttled in the Mississippi Delta after a voyage spurred by a wealthy white man’s bet that he could import slaves from Africa more than 50 years after such imports became illegal. In 1860, 109 men, women, and children survived the voyage into Mobile and were then sold into slavery. Part of what’s unique about this group of abducted Africans is that late date: Clotilda’s survivors lived long enough in some cases to be interviewed on film. They founded Africatown on the edge of Mobile, and their some of descendants live there today. When I passed through Mobile this spring, I missed Africatown. But, unknowing, I stayed in Meaher State Park, which is named after a wealthy white family, including the man who made the bet.

I found this article, accompanied by pictures and video, moving. I think it’s an important story to read and consider today. I also followed several links, like this one offering a list of destinations to visit for African American history and culture. I found a few of these on my travels this year; I’ve added to rest to my itinerary.


There is always something to keep our minds busy. I just feel lucky to have the time to follow these leads. What have you read lately?

Outrages: Sex, Censorship, and the Criminalization of Love by Naomi Wolf

**Please see the bottom of this post for why this book will not be published after all…**


Naomi Wolf examines poetry as social resistance and its ability to free its readers and its writers, the origins of homophobia and the battle against censorship in this gripping and vital history.

With Outrages: Sex, Censorship, and the Criminalization of Love, Naomi Wolf tackles the history of legislation against homosexuality in the United Kingdom through the poetry, essays and life of a man her readers have probably never heard of: John Addington Symonds. This book harnesses the electric power of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, the righteous energy of first-wave feminism and the terror of criminalized identities, in a style accessible to general readers. As the fight for LGBTQ rights continues, this book is as relevant as it is compelling.

Symonds (1840-1893) had the bad luck to come of age as a gay man just as Great Britain’s legal system turned against men who loved men. He was a writer in a time of obscenity laws. And despite the grave danger–sodomy for a time was punishable by death–he kept writing. “This is one reason why Symonds’s story, in the context of the history of censorship and the history of homosexuality, is so remarkable. The man just would not be silenced.” On top of copious publications, Symonds left behind a trove of “secret poems,” and a memoir that would not be published until nearly 130 years after his death.

While Symonds is not Wolf’s central subject, he provides inspiration and continuity for a larger story, and his life provides the book’s timeline. It opens with Symonds’s youth and the 1855 publication of Leaves of Grass. Then it follows London’s war against literal filth (human excrement in the streets, cholera, typhus) and the invention of the crime of obscenity (framed in parallel to that other filth, with its infectious properties), legislation of female bodies and what Wolf calls the laboratory of empire: Britain tried out increasingly stringent policies in its colonies before bringing them home. Wolf maps out the relationship between feminists’ campaigns for marital and property rights and the new idea that male-male love was “disgusting” or “unnatural”: “When women targeted the sexually abusive practices of heterosexual men, the outcome was a backlash by the heterosexual male establishment,” or distraction techniques directed at gay men.

Meanwhile, writers and artists sought each other out clandestinely, using coded language and referring to the ancient Greeks, as censorship laws “had an immediate dampening effect on literature.” Finally, Wolf tracks what she sees as a generational progression: Whitman influencing Symonds and then Oscar Wilde, who served two years’ hard labor for “gross indecency.” The book ends with Symonds’s death and his legacy, the writings he published in his lifetime and those he left behind for a future society ready to receive them.

Wolf’s style is easy to read, and her research is authoritative: this book is in part adapted from more academic work on the subject, and some of the most captivating scenes involve primary sources in the archives. Outrages is not only an important history with lessons for the present, but also an engagingly told story. The instructive life of Symonds is for any reader who cares about history, civil rights or the power of poetry.


This review originally ran in the May 17, 2019 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 notations to OMIT.

…and, speaking of omissions! Between my review of this book and its publication, there has been some uproar. I decided to post this review as it originally ran, and then to include a few links for your further reading.

“Naomi Wolf’s Outrages Postponed, Recalled” (from Shelf Awareness)

“Naomi Wolf’s Career of Blunders Continues in ‘Outrages’” (from The New York Times)

As it turns out, this book will not be available anytime soon.

In a nutshell, Wolf was first caught in a simple error (live on BBC radio: you can listen here) that played an important role in her book; but as the Times writer goes on to say (quite a bit more vehemently than the BBC radio host, historian Matthew Sweet), Wolf has a history of playing fast and loose with the facts.

I’m taking this in as you are, folks. What a wild ride. Vigilance on all our parts; and it’s good to read the adjacent articles as they come out, especially if you’re going to allow a book to shape your worldview…

%d bloggers like this: