more on Maclean from Liz

Nature, unfortunately for the organization of academia, is vexingly interdisciplinary.

Why are the activities aboard the Titanic so fascinating to us that we give no heed to the waters through which we pass, or to that iceberg on the horizon?

Last week I posted a review of Norman Maclean’s A River Runs Through It, and other stories. My coworker Liz, who more than once has directed us to some great reads, immediately found and forwarded a 1989 Past President’s Address to the Western Literature Association by a Glen A. Love. Her comment was: “After reading your review I went looking for Maclean biography and found this, I know you dislike the form but I was compelled to send it along anyway.” She’s referring to my dislike of essay collections – I know, it’s terrible, right? but I can’t get excited about collections of essays. A single essay, however, for no good reason, I am game for.

This one turned out to be very interesting. (Liz wins again.) It begins:

Describing the early rejection of the manuscript for his widely admired book A River Runs Through It, Norman Maclean recalls in his acknowledgments the cool dismissal from one New York publisher: “These stories have trees in them.”

And then it largely abandons Maclean; but never fear. It’s a great argument for the failure of Literature to address ecology; it’s a polemic, and sadly no less relevant and (to my inexpert eye) no less correct in its criticisms today, despite being 24 years old. I thrilled to read about great nature writers whom I’ve loved, and also those I haven’t yet discovered (and note the reference to Gretel Ehrlich, of whom I’d never heard until recently). She is mentioned as one of those writers who “seem to slough off their New York or L.A. skins when they confront western landscapes.” If that doesn’t remind you of Phil Connors, you haven’t been paying attention. Maclean inhabits this article mostly in that phrase, quoting a rejecting publisher: “These stories have trees in them.” Love argues that this is one of the tragedies of Maclean’s kind, and a chief failure of the literary establishment: that to write about trees will get you derisively branded with “the contemptuous epithet nature-lover.”

I muse, as I read this article, about some books I’ve read that were partly nature writings, but only as a framework through which to dissect the human condition: Mountains of Light was lovely, and awed by Yosemite, but the author was really there to exorcise the particular demon of his wife’s death; and Almost Somewhere was even more overtly a drama of young women coming of age, and the unfortunate cattiness that often accompanies them, set against the John Muir Trail. This is one of Love’s points, too: that we (as a society, not only as writers & critics) continue to fail to consider nature, or the earth, in its own right, and instead keep considering its role in human experience.

I think Phil Connors and especially Derrick Jensen would agree with Love’s assessments. So, I’m feeling more of that synchronicity that I’ve written of before: I’ve found another kindred spirit, as Anne of Green Gables might say.

more synchronicities

Johnny Cash, as quoted in The Man Called Cash by Steve Turner:

[The Arc de Triomphe] was really a beautiful thing. About three times as big as I thought it would be and a lot prettier. We walked around there taking pictures and then went on to the Eiffel Tower. That was something else. That was different than I’d imagined. It didn’t seem so high but was probably higher than it looked. We couldn’t see it from very far off because of the fog, and we didn’t go to the top because we were plenty cold on the ground where we were, and it sure looked a lot colder up there.

James Baldwin, in “Encounter on the Seine: Black Meets Brown,” collected in Notes of a Native Son:

Both are quite willing, and indeed quite wise, to remark instead the considerably overrated impressiveness of the Eiffel Tower.

The Eiffel Tower has naturally long since ceased to divert the French, who consider that all Negroes arrive from America, trumpet-laden and twinkle-toed, bearing scars so unutterably painful that all the glories of the French Republic may not suffice to heal them.

[“Encounter on the Seine” appears to have been originally published in 1950 (I got that here; original pub dates were not available in my copy of Notes of a Native Son), which coincidentally is the same year that Johnny Cash joined the military. I feel safe assuming that Cash would have seen the Eiffel Tower in 1950 or ’51, although I confess I’m unclear on whether the above quotation came from a contemporary account (like a journal he kept at the Air Force base where he was stationed in Germany) or from reflections he made later in life.]

I would never have imagined, as I simultaneously read essays by James Baldwin and a biography of Johnny Cash, that I would find the two of them standing side by side, in the same year or darn close to it, at the base of the Eiffel Tower, looking up. Would you?

Notes of a Native Son by James Baldwin

Notes of a Native Son is a 1955 collection of James Baldwin’s essays and articles, all previously published elsewhere as I understand it. Their subjects range over books, movies, personal history, and social commentary; what each piece has in common is a consideration of race relations in the United States. He is concerned with the American “Negro” (this is no longer considered the right word, but I’m tempted to use it here, because he did) and the relationships amongst Americans, white and black. A persistent question he ponders is that of the black man’s search for identity in a nation that variously rejects him, resents him, or feels guilt over its treatment of him, made more difficult by the loss of his own personal history pre-slavery.

There are some heavy bits here, unsurprisingly. While not exactly academic, some of it is definitely on the philosophic side of things. When Baldwin dives deeply into literary criticism, he loses me (I guess I’m rusty on literary criticism; I used to find such articles much easier to read!): “Everybody’s Protest Novel” and “Many Thousands Gone” nearly made me quit the collection. In “Carmen Jones: The Dark Is Light Enough,” he discusses a movie, and actors, so unfamiliar to me that I was only reading on the surface – where I rather enjoyed the essay, it is true, but where I certainly failed to understand fully what he had to say. On the other hand, “The Harlem Ghetto” struck me as intelligent, occasionally amusing, and relevant today. And as you know, I am always thrilled to make connections across seemingly unrelated books I’ve read or historical figures I’ve studied. Before I was halfway through this book, I’d seen mention of Lillian Hellman (see a recent biography, one of my favorite books of the year) and the Patterson family (another), not to mention of course threads that take me back to The Warmth of Other Suns, which is how I got to this book in the first place. Ah, the circularity of things: it amazes and thrills me.

My favorite pieces in this collection were the autobiographical ones. I like Baldwin’s voice very much: he is wry and funny even when discussing the serious and the tragic. And I was most interested in learning more about him. My edition begins with a “Preface to the 1984 Edition” followed by “Autobiographical Notes,” both of which set the bar high. The titular essay comes about midway through and is also excellent. But my very favorites were the last two. “Equal in Paris” relates Baldwin’s experience being arrested in Paris and tried for possessing a bedsheet from the wrong hotel. It was hilarious, and ended chillingly. And “Stranger in the Village” covers his time spent in a tiny Swiss village where the residents had never seen a black man before, and is where I felt he made his most sweeping and hopeful statements about our present and our future. It was tragic, but forward-looking.

I really enjoyed Notes of a Native Son, although there were a few moments where I got bogged down. Baldwin’s voice charmed me. I recommend him.

Rating: 7 blocks in Harlem.

biographies of parallel lives: Rachel Carson and Marie Tharp; and beyond

Remember when I raved about Soundings, the biography of the woman who mapped the ocean floor? I was enchanted in part by the style in which author Hali Felt evoked her subject, Marie Tharp, as a personality as well as a historical figure. I was also fascinated by the unique persona of Tharp herself, and her role as a woman in science in the 1940’s, 50’s, and 60’s.

And now I’m very pleased to have picked up a new biography entitled On a Farther Shore, by William Souder, about Rachel Carson, for the 50th anniversary of the publication of her groundbreaking book. Silent Spring exposed the tragic truth, that the widely used pesticide DDT was killing not only bugs, but birds and myriad other wildlife, and even humans. Carson is credited with playing a major role in the birth of the environmentalist movement.

These two biographies employ very different styles. Felt is a visible character in the story she tells, of Tharp’s life through the lens of Felt’s research experience, while Souder’s work so far tracks like a traditional biography, with the author invisible. But their subjects share a few obvious similarities. Both were women on the margins of scientific communities that weren’t entirely prepared to let them in, and they were more or less contemporaries (Tharp was born 13 years later than Carson). Both challenged the gender barrier and accepted understandings of their fields. I recognized these parallels when I began reading On a Farther Shore.

But I wasn’t prepared for the confluences and coincidences that came fast and thick in the opening chapters. (I’m only about 50 pages in, so this is far from a final review of Souder’s work. Although I do like it so far!) For one thing, forgive my ignorance: I knew about Silent Spring (I read it when I was a kid), but had not known that prior to that most famous of her books, Carson had been a well-loved and bestselling author of literary writings about the ocean. So, number one: both women were fascinated with the sea. And then came a comparison of Silent Spring, with its unprecedented exposure of an industry that would later be legislated and regulated largely because of the book itself, to one of my all time favorites: Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. Next I learned that Carson grew up scarcely an hour’s drive away from where Edward Abbey would grow up 20 years her junior. That is a hell of a coincidence.

As I joyfully made these connections (which I know will continue, because our world is all interconnected), I mused. I remember feeling, in middle school, even in high school, that certain subjects were “work,” were chores, weren’t fun, didn’t feel like they were teaching me things I’d need to know or care to know later in life. I liked English but had less use for history. And I also remember when this changed for me, and when learning for its own sake became something I felt passionately about. The light-bulb moment was related to the interconnectedness of all things. That history, biology, political science, and literature were all the same story; that nothing happens in a vacuum, just as Gertrude Stein, mentor and friend to my main man Ernest Hemingway, was a student at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts just a few decades ahead of Rachel Carson. I don’t know about the rest of you, but learning that the world is interdisciplinary and that contemporary figureheads from a variety of textbooks lived in the same world – that Einstein’s life work and philosophy was deeply influenced by his observation of German militarism culminating in Hitler’s rise to power, that the reclusive Harper Lee and the effervescent Truman Capote were buddies, that Mark Twain and the much-younger Helen Keller were close – has been the turning point for me in appreciating so much more reading and learning than I did even 10 years ago.

Recognizing these connections has led to myriad new directions in my own reading. Some of them have been in fiction (I’ve read Gertrude Stein because of her relationship with Hemingway), and many have been nonfiction. In general, I would definitely credit this larger observation with my ever-growing appreciation of nonfiction. I’m sometimes saddened to hear from people who don’t like nonfiction, because they’re missing so much. I suspect they just haven’t met the right style of nonfiction yet; but maybe, too, they haven’t had that light-bulb moment that did it for me.

Does anybody else share this feeling that everything being connected make the world a fascinating place? Has it influenced your reading habits?

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