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Marine: Angela Carter and America

Hello all!

I am a PhD student at Cardiff University, proudly representing TLW in Wales. My research focuses mostly on the portrayal of objects and materiality in the work of Angela Carter. Naturally I couldn’t miss an opportunity to talk a bit more about her. While my research doesn’t directly concern itself with transatlanticism, it is worth looking at Carter for an example of a British writer’s critique of America.

If you’ve been one of our attendees from year 1, you’ll know that we invited Dr Heidi Yeandle (Swansea University) to tell us about her research into Carter’s portrayal of America. The case for reading her work in a transatlantic light is therefore a well established one, with researchers like Yeandle, but also Sarah Gamble, and Edmund Gordon’s recent biography. Carter’s relationship to the continent was a fraught one on multiple emotional, cultural, and political levels. Her first experience of America was a trip to the ‘US of A’ after she’d won the Somerset Maugham literary Award for her novel Several Perceptions (1968). Then accompanied by her first husband Paul Carter, she took a road trip around the country before embarking on a plane to Japan. A month there led to some drastic changes: she left Paul and filed for divorce, and what was supposed to be a short stay became a 2-year long expatriation that lasted until 1972. While her trip to America was comparatively shorter and less eventful, Carter still acknowledges its effect on her imagination in the essay ‘My Maugham Award’ she wrote in 1970:

‘In America, I saw a great many hallucinatory midnight bus stations and lived in a log cabin in a redwood forest for a while. I heard the windbells of San Francisco and the picturesque cries of the street traders of the Haight-Ashbury quarter … ‘hash … lids … grass’ I made a sentimental journey to the jazz museum in New Orleans and looked at a glass case containing Bix Beiderbecke’s collar studs and handkerchief through a mist of tears. […]’[1]

The enumeration goes on. Carter compares the effect of the travels she undertook around that time with an ‘enormous barrage of imagery’ (204). Indeed, her writings bear the mark of an American inspiration, particularly her novel The Passion of New Eve (1977), set in the USA, and replete with allusions to Hollywood and the cinema industry. In addition, The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman (1972) takes place in an imagined South America – a homage to the continent of Magical Realism and Borges, who Carter had started reading while travelling in Asia.[2]

When she returned to America more than a decade later, Carter’s career had blossomed. She had published her novels The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman (1972) and The Passion of New Eve (1977), and the short story collections Fireworks (1974) and The Bloody Chamber (1979). In her polemical essay The Sadeian Woman, she had put forward radical ideas about the politics of sex, pornography, and pleasure. During the 1980s, Carter lived in the USA three times in total: in 1980, as a teaching fellow at Brown University; in 1985, for a similar position at the University of Texas, Austin; and in 1986, to work at the Writers’ Workshop of the University of Iowa.[3] Unsurprisingly, her journals from the decade testify to her growing interest in American history, but also in contemporary American culture, with topics ranging from snake fights (yes, yes) to urbanism – on a random note, she took extended notes on the malls she visited there. Nevertheless, Carter remained very ambivalent in her assessment of her temporary home country. Her notes from that time reveal her frustration:

‘It’s a culture so entirely without sensuality that I find it very difficult to work here. It’s not something I can talk to Americans about, either; the sensuous apprehension of the world was written out of the script very, very early on.’[4]

The short stories that she wrote during the decade, later anthologised in Black Venus (1984) and the posthumous Old World Wonders and American Ghosts (1992) show Carter working out her frustration with the American ‘script’ by exploring foundational myths. Carter’s America, home to Edgar Allan Poe, Lizzie Borden, Cotton Mather and John Ford, is a ghostly land, haunted by puritanism, violence, and repressed European paganism. It is also a colonised land, and the figure of the Native American appears in various guises throughout the collections. To conclude this (very) short introduction to Carter’s transatlantic aesthetics, I will leave you with her own depiction of the American continent, taken from the story ‘John Ford’s ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore”:

America begins and ends in the cold and solitude. Up here, she pillows her head upon the Arctic snow. Down there, she dips her feet in the chilly waters of the South Atlantic, home of the perpetually restless albatross. America, with her torso of a woman at the time of this story, a woman with an hour-glass waist, a waist laced so tightly it snapped in two, and we put a belt of water there. America, with your child-bearing hips and your crotch of jungle, your swelling bosom of a nursing mother and your cold head, your cold head.

Its central paradox resides in this: that the top half doesn’t know what the bottom half is doing.[5]

Marine.

[1] Angela Carter, Shaking a Leg: Collected Writings, ed. by Jenny Uglow (London: Penguin Books, 1998), p. 203.

[2] Edmund Gordon, The Invention of Angela Carter: A Biography (London: Chatto & Windus, 2016), p. 143.

[3] See Edmund Gordon, The Invention of Angela Carter: A Biography (London: Chatto & Windus, 2016), for a detailed chronology.

[4] Cited in Gordon, p. 314.

[5] Angela Carter, American Ghosts & Old World Wonders (Random House, 2012), p. 21.

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Guest Blog: Deborah Snow Molloy and her New York Gals

Hello everyone,

It’s lovely to be here, thanks very much to the team for welcoming me in a guest spot. I’m a part time, distance scholar writing from a very warm corner of Kent, and proud to be doing my PhD at the University of Glasgow under Laura’s steerage.  My project focusses on female mental illness in New York fiction of the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s, with a particular interest in the relationship between the city and female distress.

On first glance there wouldn’t appear to be much transatlanticism contained within my project, but as I sat and wondered how I could write this blog I realised just how many of my texts include a journey across the Atlantic. New York City is a liminal space, situated as it is on an archipelago at the edge of a continent, a place where fact and fiction blur.  It was a site of both entrance and exit as people came and went through the harbour, before air travel was possible, following a dream or escaping a nightmare.

Djuna Barnes describes Manhattan in a wonderfully evocative piece written in 1917 about a boat trip round the island;

“New York rose out of the water like a great wave that found it impossible to return again and so remained there in horror, peering out of the million windows men had caged it with.[1]

She goes on to recount her dismay at the amount of refuse the city dumped on the wharf and the proximity between the rotting waste, an insane asylum and a home for old men. As she tells it, the waifs and strays of the city are lumped together in one unsightly mass on Randall Island, on the opposite side to the luxurious cruise liners docked in Chelsea. It is perhaps not surprising that Barnes left New York in 1921 to become one of the Lost Generation writers in Paris, though she continued to write about the city of her youth, and ultimately did return.

Edith Wharton, a TWL favourite, similarly left the Big Apple behind her in favour of a continental existence but could not escape the lure of New York in her writing. The extended Wyant/Manford clan run away from New York in Wharton’s Twilight Sleep (1927)and Kate Cleophane makes a brave return to the city in A Mother’s Recompense (1925), only to flee again from “the Babylonian New York which seemed to sway and totter toward her menacingly[2]. Wharton wrote the blurb for Anita Loos’ Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1925)in which we follow Lorelei Lee from New York over to Europe and back again on her increasingly sociopathic adventures. Helga Crane’s internal divisions are externalised as she shuttles between Harlem and Copenhagen in Nella Larsen’s Quicksand (1928) whilst Angela Mory seeks to leave the strain of prejudice and pretence behind her as she leaves the city for Paris in Jessie Fauset’s Plum Bun(1928). These ladies flee the verticality of the city for the horizontal space of the liner deck and the wide, blue ocean, looking to escape from their troubles but often coming right back to them.

Sonya Vrunsky in Anzia Yezierska’s Salome of the Tenements(1923) makes the crossing from Europe as a child, full of potential and hope for a new life, only to find clinging poverty and disillusionment in the East Village,

“on the ship to America, the sea, the sky called to me ‘Fly, fly, free, like the sea-gulls!’ But I was roped off, herded, like cattle, in the steerage, choked with bundles and rags and sea-sick humanity.”[3]

Her struggles to reconcile her Russian, Jewish heritage with her love for her American, Protestant husband forms the transatlantic heart of the novel. Betty Smith offers a similar vignette within A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1944), as Aunt Sissy satisfies her baby-craving by adopting the illegitimate child of a young immigrant girl, who returns to Sicily with her parents after the failure of their American Dream.

Fannie Hurst is one of my more forgotten authors, though she was a best-seller for years.  She captures both the beauty and the terror of New York in her short story “The Vertical City” (1922).

“All who would see the sky must gaze upward between these rockets of frenzied architecture, which are as beautiful as the terrific can ever be beautiful.”[4]

Literary New York is an uneasy place, full of noises and motion that unsettle its inhabitants. The population ebbs and flows with the tide, and whilst characters do seek to escape it is hard to break free from the shadow of Lady Liberty.   Its many contradictions result in a disorienting map of broken lives, where only the toughest can survive, but there is also an undenial allure to the City by the sea.

As a final thought, I would like to recommend Lauren Elkin’s book Flâneuse: Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice and London(2016) to anyone looking for a slightly different literary read. In it she documents her own transatlantic travails through several major global cities, set against a back drop of insightful literary criticism.  A native New Yorker, she considers the ways that women interact with unfamiliar urban spaces in a self-deprecating and witty manner, retracing her own footsteps via the works of Jean Rhys, George Sands, Martha Gellhorn and more.  To give her the last word:

People move to New York from all over the world, drawn to what it stands for: work, success, freedom, acceptance, glamour…To approach the city from somewhere else amplifies it’s power. There are so many viewpoints on the city that ‘New York’ – the idea – is filtered in the imagination through millions of tiny windowpanes.”[5]

[1]Djuna Barnes, “’The Hem of Manhattan’ [New York Morning Telegraph Sunday Magazine, July 29, 1917]”, pp285 – 295 in New York: Djuna Barnes, edited with commentary by Alyce Barry, 1989, (Sun & Moon Press: Los Angeles),

[2]Edith Wharton, The Mother’s Recompense, 1986, (Virago Press Ltd: London), p36

[3]Anzia Yezierska, Salome of the Tenements, 1995, (University of Illinois Press: Urbana and Chicago), 34

[4]Fannie Hurst, “The Vertical City”, 48-62 in The Vertical City,2015, (Jefferson Publication: USA)

[5]Lauren Elkin, Flâneuse: Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice and London,2016, (Vintage: London)

Get to know the TLW Team — New Committee Member Chiara Bullen

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 one of our newest committee members, Chiara Bullen.

Hi all,

I’m thrilled to be part of the TLW team and I’m excited for everyone to see the upcoming events we have in store this year — you’re in for a treat!

I currently work in publishing and I am a freelance writer in my spare time. Last year I gained my Masters’ Degree at the University of Stirling in Publishing Studies, and my research focused on the concept of the Author and Publisher brands and how each interacted with readers. I’m fascinated by the impact of publishing and literature on society and how other factors (such as technology and marketing) can influence this, and I’m thinking about pursuing a PhD in this area next year.

Although I’m not currently working on any research projects, I’ve always been interested in women writers who have been overlooked for male writers by the publishing industry during the 20th century, and I’ve been exploring a few of these cases over the summer.

My interest started when I discovered Zelda Fitzgerald for the first time when I was working as a bookseller in Waterstones. As I was shelving away copies of The Great Gatsby, I noticed a copy of Save Me The Waltz next to these copies and wondered why I had never heard of Zelda Fitzgerald or her work. Fast forward a few years and I would come to study Zelda Fitzgerald’s work during my undergraduate degree, and I was spurred on by the unfair treatment she received from prominent writing circles, the publishing industry and her husband, F. Scott Fitzgerald, when it came to her artistic work.

The relationship between the couple is one that has attracted much speculation and glamorisation (demonstrated, for example, with Amazon Prime’s Z: The Beginning of Everything) and there are instances that have come to light over the years that strongly suggest Zelda Fitzgerald was much more than simply inspiration for some of her husband’s work. When she was asked to review F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Beautiful and the Damned in 1922 for the New York Review, she notes:

‘It seems to me that on one page I recognized a portion of an old diary of mine which mysteriously disappeared shortly after my marriage, and, also, scraps of letters which, though considerably edited, sound to me vaguely familiar. Mr Fitzgerald—I believe that is how he spells his name—seems to believe that plagiarism begins at home.’ [1]

Later, the Fitzgeralds’ combined title Bits of Paradise (consisting of twenty-three stories written by the couple) would see most of Zelda Fitzgerald’s stories published with a co-authored by-line, despite her sole ownership of the work. This was due to an agreement between her husband and his literary agent, Harold Ober. Ober also removed her name from her short story Millionaire’s Girl when submitting to publishers looking to strike a deal. These instances are a grim reminder of just how many barriers women writers faced when trying to get their work published and maintain their authorship in the early 20th century.

I also recently came across the case of Sanora Babb, another writer who faced similar barriers. Babb was a writer and journalist who worked with the Farm Security Administration of California in 1938 where she made extensive notes about the Dust Bowl, the Great Depression and its impact on people as research for her novel. These detailed notes were sent by her boss, Tom Collins, to John Steinbeck (who would go on to dedicate the book to Collins) and thus the Grapes of Wrath was published just before Babb could gain a publishing deal for her own novel (titled Whose Names Are Unknown). Babb, furious, focused her career on other areas and became a successful poet and writer. She was eventually convinced to publish Whose Names are Unknown in 2004, before passing away in 2005 at the age of 98.[2]

The injustice faced by these women is truly infuriating, but it is inspiring beyond words to see how they persisted with their writing despite the attempts to be stripped of their authorship and their creativity taken advantage of. I hope to bring my interest in this area and highlight more transatlantic women writers who faced these injustices into events during my time with the TLW team.


References

  • [1] Milford, Nancy, Zelda: A Biography, Harper & Row.
  • [2] Meyer, Michael J. The Steinbeck Review 4, no. 1 (2007): 135-39.

Get to know the TLW team: Kari and the Hollywood Novel

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 resident film buff, Kari Sund!

***

I hope you’re all having a great summer and that everyone has had the chance to enjoy the rare Scottish sunshine! My reading is strictly taking place outdoors now (even in rain – I’m stubborn!) so I thought I would focus this blog post on one of the novels I’ve been reading over the last few weeks, Dorothy B. Hughes’ In A Lonely Place (1949). I’ve just re-read this thrilling American crime novel, and I’m hoping that a small taster will convince anyone who hasn’t encountered it before to give it a read.

In a Lonely Place is both a fitting and an unconventional summer read. It’s set in sunny Los Angeles in the 1940s, and the location plays an important role as we follow the main character, Dix Steele, driving around Hollywood, Beverley Hills, and other well-known West Coast locations. We find out very early in the novel, however, that Dix is a serial killer, and many of these routes are the same ones which he uses at night to stalk his victims before raping and murdering them. What might initially be perceived as a sunny and glamorous setting for a novel quickly becomes an extremely dark and disturbing place.

Dix Steele is an ex-World War II fighter pilot. He is originally from the East coast, was based in England during the war, and now lives in Los Angeles. The opening chapter sets the scene for the rest of the novel: Dix reconnects with Brub, his wartime best friend who is now a detective in the LAPD, and he stalks two girls through the dark streets of the city, murdering one of them. He also bumps into his stunning neighbour Laurel Gray, for the first time, immediately falling for her. The rest of the novel follows Dix’s inner narrative as he juggles his secret life as a serial killer, with the seemingly normal persona of a young man falling in love with a girl, and socialising with his best friend.

What seems like love to the outsider, is arguably a desire to possess and control a woman who commands more respect than him. This is obvious from the first time Dix meets Laurel;

“The girl didn’t move for a moment. She stood in his way and looked him over slowly, from crown to toe. The way a man looked over a woman, not the reverse. Her eyes were slant, her lashes curved long and golden dark. She had red-gold hair, flaming hair, flung back from her amber face, falling to her shoulders. Her mouth was too heavy with lipstick, a copper-red mouth, a sultry mouth painted to call attention to its promise.” (21)

It is evident that gender roles are being reversed in this encounter with Laurel, and Dix’s overbearing need to possess her after this is akin to his urge to kill. It is this element of Hughes’ writing which lead to it being interpreted as a feminist story.

Hughes makes no secret throughout the novel that Dix and “the strangler” are one and the same. Many critics have remarked on the nature of the novel as “less a “whodunit” than what we might term a “whydunnit”” (Telotte). I found, rather, that the pleasure in reading this novel came from the experience of piecing together Dix’s history of murder as he gradually unfolds past events to us. It’s like being in a police interview room and hearing a confession, not necessarily of why a man has killed – because Dix never directly reveals this – but of when and how he has killed, and then being able to draw our own conclusions about why.

Some readers may be familiar with the 1950 film-adaptation of the novel, which diverges from Hughes’ storyline in interesting ways. In Nicholas Ray’s film, the viewer is left in suspense about whether Dix is the serial-killer until the very last scene. Though the movie-version of Dix (appropriately played by Humphrey Bogart) is a flawed man with severe anger issues, he is ultimately **!spoiler warning!** innocent of murder. On first watching the film, I assumed that the reason for this change was due to the Motion Picture Production Code, also known as the Hays Code. The Hays Code laid out industry moral guidelines which American-produced movies had to adhere to. These guidelines dictated what could and could not be depicted on screen. Amongst the many topics prohibited were miscegenation, sex, drug use, and it was also not permitted to show or encourage sympathy for a criminal. This meant that the hero of a film could not be allowed to get away with a crime, especially not murder! The impact that the Hays Code had on scriptwriting, adaptation, and film production during this era was huge, so it was surprising to learn that this plot divergence was completely unrelated, and a directorial preference. In Film Noir, Alain Silver advises that the original script saw Dix trying to strangle Laurel, and claims that it was Ray’s decision to change this, with Ray allegedly saying “I just can’t do it. Romances don’t have to end that way . . . They don’t have to end in violence” (474).

I’m not going to try and argue that this novel is overly transatlantic, but there are definitely aspects of relevance which struck me. The war preoccupies much of Dix’s thoughts and memories, and Hughes juxtaposes the overseas experiences of men like Dix and Brub, who have both killed in a way which was accepted and unquestioned by society, with the difficulty that they often experienced trying to integrate back into “normal” society and behaviour. Furthermore, as we see with Dix, many men experienced a completely different quality of life during the war. Dix reminisces about the days when he was a well-dressed hero who commanded respect regardless of what his social background was. When he returns home, he struggles to move back into the social class he belongs to. Though he is not poor, he is also not wealthy, and is required to work for a living. As an alternative to this, Dix prefers to scrounge off a comfortable uncle under the pretence that he writing a book, all the while longing to have the leisure-class lifestyle which he constantly sees promoted around him in California. By basing Dix in England during the war, Hughes makes the chasm between these two lives even more pronounced. The men’s time in the air force seems completely disconnected from their lives at home in America, and they know very little about each other.

If you have an interest in crime, detective, Los Angeles, or Hollywood fiction then I would highly recommend In A Lonely Place. Not only was it a gripping page-turner on the first reading, but like all my favourite works of literature, it was even better on a second reading. When we think of American crime fiction, we tend to automatically think of authors such as Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, and the hard-boiled style. It’s certainly not a genre often associated with women writers, but Hughes’ work stands at the top for me.

Though quite different from the novel, the film adaptation is also fantastic, and now regarded as a classic film noir. If you are interested in seeing it on the big screen, then the Glasgow Film Theatre have screened it around November-time for the last two years, so do keep your eyes peeled if you think it’s something you might enjoy!

***

Next week we’ll be introducing one of our new committee members, so stay tuned!

 

Additional reading:

You can read a free excerpt from In A Lonely Place here.

I also enjoyed this take on the novel as a feminist story, from Glasgow Women’s Library.

 References:

Telotte, J. P., ‘The Displaced Voice of “In A Lonely Place”’ in South Atlantic Review, Vol. 54, No. 1 (Jan 1989), pp. 1-12.

Silver, Alain, James Ursini et al. Film Noir. Ed. Paul Duncan & Jürgen Müller. Taschen, 2012.

 

Get to know the TLW team: Saskia talks Transatlantic Virginia Woolf

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 Suffrage Centenary organiser, Saskia McCracken.

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.

***

Hi all,

I’m currently a PhD candidate at the University of Glasgow, and my research focuses on Woolf’s Darwinian animal imagery. Today however, I’m going to talk a little bit about Woolf’s first novel The Voyage Out (1915). We don’t normally think of Woolf as a transatlantic writer, after all she never crossed the Atlantic in person, but she did write nonfiction about America and American writing (as I discussed in an earlier TLW blog); her  novel The Voyage Out is about a transatlantic journey that begins in London and ends in South America; and she published her work in the American magazine The Atlantic Monthly, including serialised versions of her pacifist feminist polemic Three Guineas (1938), and her biography of Flush (1933) the spaniel.

Most people haven’t heard of, let alone read The Voyage Out. It was Woolf’s first published novel, and is in many ways more conventional and Victorian than her later, famous experimental works such as Mrs Dalloway (1925) and The Waves (1931). The novel is, however, avant-garde in several respects: she explores narrative perspective using free indirect discourse, uses a Wagnerian musical structure (see Davison), and writes about and the ‘curious, unrepresented life’ of women (p.217). The protagonist, a young woman called Rachel Vinrace, travels aboard her father’s ship to the fictional South American port of Santa Marina, where she becomes part of an ex-pat community based in a hotel. The story introduces Mr and Mrs Dalloway who became the well-known characters of her later work. Rachel and the other ex-pats journey into the jungle, where they visit an indigenous village, and are surprised to find that when they stare at the local people, those people stare back:

‘As she drew apart her shawl and uncovered her breast to the lips of her baby, the eyes of [one local] woman never left their faces, although they moved uneasily under her stare, and finally turned away, rather than stand there looking at her any longer.’

The observers become the observed, keenly aware of themselves as over-dressed and unwelcome tourists. After this expedition, everything changes, but I won’t tell you how. I can’t discuss the subversive ending without spoilers.

Woolf’s library held copies of Darwin’s Autobiographies, Journal of Researches (known as The Voyage of the Beagle), On the Origin of Species, and The Descent of Man. Her descriptions of the landscape (as scholars including Gillian Beer and Claire Davison have pointed out) are hard to distinguish from Darwin’s descriptions of the jungles he visited in South America during The Voyage of the Beagle, and it is clear that she used his research as a resource for her fiction. Knowing this changes the way we read and categorise the novel. In terms of genre the book is a coming of age story, a novel of manners, and a satire of Edwardian upper-class British society, but it is also an engagement with colonial travel narratives (such as Darwin’s Voyage and Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness), as well as a feminist critique of the marriage plot. Faced with two suitors, both of whom are trying to educate her (and neither of whom are particularly appealing) Rachel does not get the conventional ending we might expect. But instead of giving away the plot, I’ll end with a few notes on the mixed reception of this novel.

In the UK E. M. Forster called The Voyage Out:

‘a strange, tragic, inspired book whose scene is a South America not found on any map and reached by a boat which would not float on any sea, an America whose spiritual boundaries touch Xanadu and Atlantis’ [i]

A book reviewer for the New York Times, however, was less generous:

‘there is little in this offering to make it stand out from the ruck of mediocre novels which make far less literary pretension’ but ‘there should be a possibility of something worthwhile from the same pen in the future’ [ii]

Forster’s response is far closer to my own than the latter critique. But perhaps you could try reading the novel for yourself and see what you think! You are bound to be surprised with what you find in Woolf’s first, clearly transatlantic, novel.

Sources:

Beer, Gillian. Virginia Woolf: The Common Ground. Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 1996.

Davison, Claire. ‘The Ascents and Descents of Man? Darwin, Music and Virginia Woolf’s The Voyage Out.’ Guest lecture. University of Glasgow, 01 October 2015. Print forthcoming.

Woolf, Virginia. The Voyage Out. London: Granada, 1978.

 

[i] Quotes from: http://virginiawoolfblog.com/the-voyage-out/

[ii] Quotes from: http://virginiawoolfblog.com/the-voyage-out/

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.

Get to know the TLW team: Sarah talks transatlantic speechwriters

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.

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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!

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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.