Get to know the TLW team: Laura’s Summer So Far – And a Reading Spotlight on Josephine Johnson

Hello everyone! Over the summer, each member of the TLW team will be writing a post to tell you a little bit about what they’re reading and researching at the moment. Today it’s our founder, Dr Laura Rattray.

***

At TLW HQ, we’re busy working on events for the new session – and we’re excited about them! We’ll be sharing full details later in the summer, but we can tell now you we already have six events in the pipeline, including teaming up with some awesome people and organisations in Glasgow and beyond. We hope you’ll join us in September for what we’re calling our first team road trip, and next month we’re looking forward to introducing two fab new members to Team TLW. We welcome your ideas, so if there’s an event you’d like to see, be part of, a theme you’d like to propose, as always please get in touch with us via twitter or at the email address on this site. All events are free and open to all.

What else am I up to (apart from the regular summer work of dissertation and theses supervisions, new teaching prep, programme convening, externalling, planning a programme for the university’s Centre of American Studies)? Well, I’m recently back from a conference in Dublin on Transatlantic Women, taking part in a panel on Edith Wharton’s Transatlanticism.  I know colleagues who are dismissive of/ tired of conferences, even if costs are covered by their universities, but for me they remain one of the fun, enjoyable parts of the work. And they’re valuable, sometimes in unexpected ways. Two years ago it was our conversation at a conference that led my US colleague, Mary Chinery, and I to realise that in 1901 Wharton had written a play called The Shadow of a Doubt, a play that none of us had been aware of. Fired up by that conversation we determined to see if we could track it down. And we did, publishing the play and our article in the Edith Wharton Review. It’s been energising to see professional readings of the play in the US this year as a result of that work, and there are more in pipeline, including, fingers crossed, a full-scale production. That simply wouldn’t have happened without the conference.

This week saw the offer of a contract for a new project I’m excited about, and over the summer I’m finishing a book on Wharton, which I’m really enjoying working on. I’ve made a pact with myself in terms of research that I will only do work I care about. I’m not always great at the life/work balance, so if I’m working I figure it better damn well be on stuff I love.

And some of that work I care about is drawing attention to women writers who have been neglected, side-lined, or forgotten. It was one of the reasons I started the Transatlantic Literary Women Series in the first place and one of the reasons I run a course on modern American women’s writing. This summer I’m revisiting the writing of Josephine Johnson. Josephine Who? Exactly! Here’s some more information on the first of my summer reads:

In September 1934, at the height of America’ s Great Depression, twenty-four-year-old Josephine Johnson published her first novel, Now in November. Without giving away any plot spoilers (and there are dramatic events) the story is seen through the eyes of a young protagonist whose family, like millions of Americans, was badly hit by the Depression, and they move out of the city to try and scratch out a living from the land:

We left our other life behind us as if it had not been. Only the part that was of and in us, the things we’d read and the things remembered, came with us . . . We left a world all wrong, confused, and shouting at itself. . .

Reviewers were swept away by the novel, exclaiming somewhat bizarrely that the country had found a talent worthy of comparison to Emily Dickinson, Katherine Mansfield, Willa Cather, and Emily Bronte (all of them? really?). Now in November was even called ‘the American Wuthering Heights’. The novel was both timely and timeless, politically astute without resorting to polemics, and written in a beautifully lyrical prose style.

The following year, Now in November won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, and Johnson seemed set. Publishers were clamouring to represent her. A collection of stories, Winter Orchard, swiftly followed. Some of the publicity undoubtedly patronised Johnson – because she was a woman, and because she was young. She was depicted a young naïf, living miles from anywhere, and to an extent Johnson played along with this, claiming in a local interview she was as happy in the kitchen as she was writing, as though she had tossed out a Pulitzer novel between baking pies. In reality, Johnson was a committed activist, involved with unions and groups fighting for the victimised and dispossessed. In June 1936, she would be arrested under suspicion of encouraging cottonfield workers to strike.

Johnson’s eagerly awaited second novel, Jordanstown, published in April 1937, brought the political convictions that were largely on the fringes on Now in Novemberto the fore. Its male protagonist buys a local newspaper to expose injustice and mobilise workers in a protest that is brutally supressed by the police. Reviews, at best, were mixed. Bernard de Voto, writing in the Saturday Review of Literature, concluded: ‘The loss of a first-rate psychological novelist is too high a price to pay for a second-rate sociological novelist, or even for a first-rate one…[I]f she returns to the kind of fiction that she was unquestionably destined to write, she may be the foremost woman novelist of her generation.’[i]

In some ways this was the beginning of the end for Johnson. She would not become the foremost novelist of her generation – woman or otherwise. For a time it seemed that she had abandoned fiction in the 1930s, but when I looked at the records in her archive, there in a box were four surviving chapters of a novel that in 1939 was rejected outright by the publishing house that had nurtured her – along with the advice to ‘take a break’ from writing altogether.

Wounded by the criticism Johnson would do just that and take a prolonged break from her writing career, directing her energies to other concerns: politics, unions, mural painting, government rehabilitation farms, marriage and children. A single novella, Wildwood, would be followed by a publishing hiatus of almost twenty years.

Johnson’s work drifts in and out of print (including re. the latter, *sigh*, an edition for which I wrote a preface years ago). Currently the book is available though, so if you’re looking for a different read, are interested in the 1930s, the Depression from the point of view of woman, or in shining a light on another writer who in many ways has fallen by the wayside, Now in November comes highly recommended. John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, wonderful as it is, doesn’t have a monopoly on indelible pictures of the Depression and Dust Bowl years.

Happy summer!

Laura Rattray

[i]Bernard de Voto, ‘In Pursuit of an Idea’, Saturday Review of Literature, 3 April 1937, pp. 6-7.

Advertisements

Get to know the TLW team: Sarah

Hello everyone! Over the summer, each member of the TLW team will be writing a post to tell you a little bit about what they’re reading and researching at the moment. First up is our resident historian, Sarah.

***

Hi TLW readers,

I’m currently writing my Masters dissertation here at the University of Glasgow, while simultaneously preparing for a move back to Edinburgh to start my PhD in September, so I’m having a busy summer! Excitingly, we’ve also started the planning for TLW Season 3, and it’s shaping up to be a fantastic series of events (if we do say so ourselves).

My Masters dissertation explores the transatlantic trip Ronald Reagan made to Europe during the summer of 1984. During his visit Reagan toured Ireland (his ancestral home), then visited London and Normandy, making plenty of stops for photo opportunities along the way. Of course, 1984 was also the year that Reagan ran for re-election, and I’m hoping my dissertation will demonstrate how Reagan used this trip to his political advantage as he sought a second term in the White House. This tactic of implicitly campaigning simply by appearing ‘presidential’ is known as the Rose Garden Strategy, and is one side-effect of the US President being both an elected politician and the head of state. Ultimately, my aim is to offer a contribution to the wider field of presidential studies, by offering a case study of this relatively short episode during Reagan’s presidency.

Though my focus will be on Reagan, while I’m on the TLW blog I’d like to give a quick nod to a different sort of writer than the ones we normally talk about at TLW HQ. Peggy Noonan was one of Reagan’s speechwriters, and she wrote the most famous speech that Reagan delivered during this trip, his remarks commemorating the 40thAnniversary of the Normandy Invasion. She wrote the speech with two audiences in mind, the American people who heard the speech on the breakfast news, and the audience of veterans who served during this mission and accompanied Reagan to Pointe du Hoc for the commemoration.[1] Noonan said of this speech:

“I wanted to sum up the importance of what happened on those Normandy beaches forty years ago, to show its meaning on the long ribbons of history […] I wanted people to have pictures in their mind of what the past had been like. I wanted the president vividly to describe what these men did forty years ago. “These are the boys who took the cliffs” and the TV showing those men” [2]

It’s an incredibly moving speech, which I’d highly recommend you watch to get the full effect of its staging as well as its language. Regardless of how you feel about Reagan, it’s hard to deny that he had a phenomenal team of people around him, and that’s very apparent when you examine the meticulous planning that went into all of Reagan’s public remarks.

Though I’m mostly reading non-fiction works for my dissertation, I’m trying to make time to read some fiction. At the moment the books on my bedside table are Paul Auster’s 4 3 2 1 and Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, but I’m embarrassed to admit how long they’ve been there for… But, as you can probably tell, my fiction reading tends to complement my non-fiction reading!

***

Thanks for reading! Next week we’ll have a blog post from our founder, Dr Laura Rattray of the University of Glasgow.

[1]William Ker Muir, Jr. The Bully Pulpit: The Presidential Leadership of Ronald Reagan (San Francisco, CA: Institute for Contemporary Studies Press, 1992), 27.

[2]Ibid.

Suffragette Spotlight: Elizabeth Cady Stanton

As we look forward to our upcoming Suffrage Centenary Celebration at Glasgow’s People’s Palace Museum (26th and 27th May 1-4pm), we’ve decided to blog about some of the inspiring women who fought for women’s suffrage. Today, we’d like to tell you about an early American suffragist, Elizabeth Cady Stanton.

Elizabeth_Stanton

Elizabeth Cady Stanton was born in Johnstown, New York in 1815. Throughout her life she was a prominent woman’s rights activist, abolitionist and writer. She’s perhaps best known for her role as an organiser of the world’s first women’s rights convention, the 1848 Senaca Falls Convention, and for authoring the Declaration of Sentiments that was presented there:

“The history of mankind is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations on the part of man toward woman, having in direct object the establishment of an absolute tyranny over her. To prove this, let facts be submitted to a candid world.

He has never permitted her to exercise her inalienable right to the elective franchise.

He has compelled her to submit to laws, in the formation of which she had no voice.

He has withheld from her rights which are given to the most ignorant and degraded men—both natives and foreigners.

Having deprived her of this first right of a citizen, the elective franchise, thereby leaving her without representation in the halls of legislation, he has oppressed her on all sides.”

Extract from the Declaration of Sentiments

Stanton wasn’t just concerned with women’s suffrage. She was a prominent abolitionist in the years leading up to the American Civil War, alongside her husband Henry B. Stanton. During the period after the war known as Reconstruction the two campaigned to have women’s rights issues considered alongside the passage of the 14th and 15th amendments, to the anger of some of their former allies.

Stanton fell out of favour with the mainstream women’s rights movement towards the end of her life, partly due to her outspoken stance on women’s reproductive rights and her support of women leaving unhappy marriages to seek a divorce. Nevertheless, she was elected as the first president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association, which was eventually successful in lobbying for the passage of the 19th amendment, which gave women the right to vote.

Keep an eye on our website for more blogs like this one, or follow us on Twitter @transatlanticladies using the hashtag #TLWsuffrage. And if you want to learn more about ground-breaking suffragettes, make your own rosettes, and learn about women and the vote, join us at the People’s Palace for an afternoon of crafts, talks, and a look at Glasgow’s suffrage collections!

 

*image sourced here, last accessed May 6th 2018*

Sources/Further Reading:

https://www.history.com/topics/womens-history/elizabeth-cady-stanton

https://www.biography.com/people/elizabeth-cady-stanton-9492182

https://www.nps.gov/wori/learn/historyculture/elizabeth-cady-stanton.htm

 

 

 

Forgotten Transatlantic Literary Women: Anzia Yezierska

**Remember to join our #TLWBookChat on #ForgottenTLW on the 28th of February**

In the lead up to our online book club on the 28th of February, we’re posting about overlooked transatlantic woman writers, and today I’m going to talk about Anzia Yezierska. She was born around 1880 in Russian Poland and emigrated to the United States in 1890. She grew up in poverty in the Jewish immigrant community of Manhattan’s lower East Side, one of nine children.* She left home at seventeen, rejecting the expectations of her deeply religious father about the ‘appropriate’ roles for women in society. She held down a series of manual jobs while studying, and eventually gained a degree and pursued a career as a writer.

Issues of gender, identity and poverty permeate Yezierska’s writing. Her first book, a collection of short stories titled Hungry Hearts (1920), was well-received. It was quickly turned into a Hollywood film, boosting Yezierska’s reputation as a writer and earning her a significant sum of money. She published prolifically throughout the 1920s and into the 1930s, but her work became less popular and fell out of fashion in the 1940s and 1950s. She died in 1970 in relative obscurity, having published just one book in the last forty years of her life (Red Ribbon on a White Horse, 1950).

Shortly after Yezierska’s death, Alice Kessler-Harris arranged the first reprinted edition of Bread Givers (1925) in 1975, and Persea Books went on to reprint copies of many of Yezierska’s other works over the coming years. Public and scholarly interest in Yezierska has grown steadily, as new generations find inspiration in her words.

Yezierska_CedarRapids_5Mar1921.jpg
Sketch of Yezierska, 1921 [image from Wikimedia Commons]
While much of Yezierska’s work is autobiographical, this is arguably most true of Bread Givers. Yezierska’s protagonist Sara Smolinsky is fiercely independent, and ready to take advantage of all the opportunities available to her in the so-called ‘New World’:

“Thank God, I’m not living in olden times. Thank God, I’m living in America! You made the lives of the other children! I’m going to make my own life!

[…]

“My will is as strong as yours. I’m going to live my own life. Nobody can stop me. I’m not from the old country. I’m American!”

Bread Givers, ch.VIII

The presence of such a strong-willed female protagonist is refreshing, especially for a novel of this period. It skilfully questions the realities of the American Dream, while simultaneously raising issues concerning identity and cultural assimilation. The tension between the old and new is drawn out through the relationship between Sara and her parents, who prevent her from truly escaping from the restrictions imposed by her religious and cultural background. And, while the novel was once criticised for its use of vernacular and colloquialisms, the value of such rhetorical techniques is now lauded by scholars and the public alike, for adding to the novel’s realism.

Given recent discussions about gender and women’s roles in society, Bread Givers remains astonishingly relevant to a modern reader. Indeed, perhaps Yezierska’s greatest talent is presenting such a vivid and accurate portrayal of a very specific community, yet enabling readers from diverse cultures and backgrounds to find value in her writing.

Yezierska’s first collection of short stories, Hungry Hearts, is available to read online. It’s well worth dipping into if you want to get a feel for her writing style and the themes she engages with in her writing.

 

By Sarah Thomson

 

*Biographical detail taken from Alice Kessler Harris’s foreword and introduction to Bread Givers (New York: Persea Books, Inc. 2003).

Sarah joins the TLW Team

The TLW Team is thrilled to be welcoming two new members, Sarah Thomson and Kari Sund, for the 2017/2018 series. For their first post, we’ve asked each of them to write a short blog introducing themselves. First up is Sarah:

Hi everyone!

I’m Sarah, and I’m delighted to be one of the two new members of the Transatlantic Literary Women’s committee for 2017/2018. For my debut on the blog, I’m going to share a little bit about myself, how I got involved with TLW, and what I’m hoping to see in the series this year.

I’ll be starting an MLitt in American Studies at the University of Glasgow in September, having just finished my undergrad at the University of Edinburgh. But, it was my year abroad at the University of Virginia that cemented my enthusiasm for all things American. While one year in the US perhaps isn’t quite long enough for me to call myself a transatlantic woman, it was certainly enough time for me to develop an overwhelming love for Charlottesville’s sunny weather, gorgeous scenery, and ‘school spirit’ (go Hoos!).

The first TLW event I attended was the popular Transatlantic Modernisms Workshop. Although I’d taken a class on transatlantic modernism before, the course featured just one female author (Virginia Woolf, predictably!). So, TLW’s workshop felt like a golden opportunity to learn about some of the understudied and overlooked women writers of the period. The series finale, the Transatlantic Symposium, was another great chance to learn some new names and pick up some reading recommendations. I was also delighted to get to take part in the final workshop of the day, making the case for my favourite transatlantic lady: Nella Larsen. Podcasts from the symposium are currently in the pipeline, so keep an eye out for those!

Despite spending most of my time studying history rather than literature, I’m hoping that being the team’s ‘resident historian’ will have its uses (if for nothing other than to provide some fun historical facts to complement whatever we’re reading!). I have a lot still to learn when it comes to American literature, but the TLW series is a great environment for exploring all things ‘transatlantic’, so I’m looking forward to it. I studied African American literature for the first time during my final semester at Edinburgh, so I’ll definitely be championing some of the women whose work I read on that course! And, with the centenary of (partial) women’s suffrage in 2018, I’m excited to see how that’ll feature in next year’s programme.

Having enjoyed the events I attended last semester I’m thrilled that this season I’ll be getting involved with the planning and organising side of things. Without giving too much away, it looks like another great line up of events, and I can’t wait to see everyone in September!

Sarah.