A good bad book

The premise behind Monique Truong’s The Book of Salt is high concept but appealing: the story of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas’s Indochinese cook. There's a smart an elegant turn, too: by making him gay, Truong explores gay and lesbian life in 1920's Paris without having to work through a judgmental narrator. A good friend who reads a lot of wonderful contemporary literature raved about it and she and I have a lot of mutual friends, so I was excited to read it.

Much about it was so terrific and moving, but even I, Woolf scholar though I be, can only take so much dreamlike, plotless prose.

The premise is a good one. An Binh, after many years in Paris, receives a letter from his brother in Saigon. Their abusive father is dying; come home. The letter is salty: is it the salt of the sea? of tears? of cooking? There is a beautiful passage on types of salt and how they might help Binh figure out what he owes to a painful past.

But, while some of the stuff on Stein and Toklas is funny—about daily feasts of liver for the poodles—whenever Truong moves to make them into characters, the note is a little off: we always already know too much and too little about them, so while they work as background figures, they do not, and cannot, give the novel emotional weight. The real problem, however, is the back-story of his mother’s marriage as a child bride and the extramarital love affair that lead to his birth, the fourth and final son. The mother never emerges as a character with any interiority, but as the novel goes on, we spend more and more time in her story. Because we don’t know her mind, but we know all kinds of very intimate facts about here, something in the scale of the book is off. What a disappointment. 

Maggie Righetti, Knitting in Plain English

My reading lately has disappointed—more on that, perhaps, soon—so that’s part of the reason, perhaps, that the best book I’ve read these few weeks is the amazing Maggie Righetti’s Knitting in Plain English (2007).

I tried to knit a little as a teenager and then, last year, my daughter and I thought we might try it. We didn’t get much farther than buying some wool and when I went back, this year, to the stitches I’d cast on for a hat, they were much too tight to work with. I ripped them out and decided just to use that lovely purple and green variegated yarn to make a scarf.

That down, I went and bought more yarn and then I decided that quirky YouTube videos were not going to be quite enough. I’m just a bit too old and staid to find Stitch’n’Bitch amusing, so I bought this book.

She really is the Mark Bittman of knitting, teaching basics, principles, and methods, with a soupçon of Erma Bombeck or Nora Ephron. It’s a very funny and helpful book. More than once she writes “Once you accept that God gave you a brain and that She intended you to use it to make your life better, you can do almost anything.”

I have rarely read a book with such a terrific, funny, feminist voice. She describes, in goofy detail, the mistakes she made and the tearful outraged women who confront her at her yarn store with spoiled projects. She is frank about differences among our bodies—heavy arms, large busts, tiny waists—and how they demand that we alter patterns to suit the body we have. There are not many pictures at all, but what pictures there are show a range of races, ages, and body types. She is relentless and very funny about all the ways pretty, tall, slim, young models trick us into thinking we are admiring the sweater when we are simply admiring them.

There is a lot of prose, but there is also a catalogue of pretty stitches and a kind of syllabus of projects to work through to learn some basic principles with pleasure, most famously something she calls “The Dumb Baby Sweater”: “I don’t care what you do with these baby things when you have learned all you can from them. And I don’t pretend that they are things of beauty, but they are filled with learning experiences. What you do with the silly things after the learning is over is your business.”

Plus, from her I learned that the Kitchener stitch, a method of joining two knitted pieces together, was invented by Lord Kitchener himself.

You can read a little bit more about her here, and find some of her patterns at ravelry. Maybe this is all old news to you, but, not being a knitter (yet), she is a delightful discovery to me.

(Not quite the summit of) Mt. Algonquin

Growing up in the Pacific Northwest, I knew a lot of hikers. At elementary school, you could get bragging rights by having a low membership number to R.E.I. (the lower the number, the earlier your parents had joined the co-op to buy their gear). Our number was pretty low. My dad moved to Seattle from Boston in 1962 and he was a hiker—and a sky-diver—though my mom made him quit jumping out of airplanes for fun when he became a father, so I only have that on hearsay. On hearsay, too, are the stories of baby-me, in the backpack, smearing gooey graham cracker crumbs on my father’s ears while my parents took walks through the woods. And I remember my mother making fun of a family friend who claimed to like hiking. “I don’t think she really hikes,” my mom sniffed. “She just walks a mile or two and opens a bottle of wine.”

Last summer, like everyone else, I read Cheryl Strayed’s Wild and was reminded of my own (very different) roots in the outdoors. So, when my husband proposed an anniversary trip to the Adirondacks to camp out and climb Mt. Algonquin, I accepted.

Wild it was not. Strayed I am not.

The children were with family, but we had Flynn the rescue dog/coon hound with us. He went almost all the way--up to the tree line, where I stopped, quaking with fatigue and fear. Flynn loved it. He was on the leash the whole way, which made some of the more technical boulders challenging for my husband. The dog pulled him all the way up the mountain & then pulled him all the way down. Flynn would leap and then try to leap to the next boulder before my husband climbed the first. Or choose a different route. There was one big rock, about 10 feet high and 12 across. You had to clamber up its side and kind of tightrope walk across the top to rejoin the trail. We had to send me first, then let the dog walk across, tossing the leash to me midway so my husband could cross last. (Hound that he is, Flynn will bolt at the first scent and can’t walk free.)

It was scary because the whole hike, an eight-mile out & back of which I did about 7.5 miles, was very rocky, very technical: climbing up stone steps and boulders. At almost no point could you just walk. Most of the trail was big rocks ranging from the size of a large cobblestone to the size of a big ceramic pot. With every step, you had to look ahead to see if, in choosing to pivot to the right side of the path you were setting yourself up for a good or bad step two or three steps further along. It took a ton of concentration. At one point, after about 3 miles, I was climbing up a path that was basically a dry stream bead, or, maybe more accurately, a crazy obstacle course of boulders, to find my husband seated on a large plinth. "Have a seat and a drink, Hon," he said. 

I looked up.

The next couple hundred feet was basically a sheer rock wall with cracks you had to shimmy along every five feet or so. I burst into tears. I got a hold of myself, stopped shaking, watched two people climb it, waited for two more to climb down, and set off behind him. I did it. But I was defeated.

It had been so terrifying and somehow instead of being able to feel impressed at what I had done, I was just overwhelmed by how hard it had been to do it. About a half mile later, we got to the tree line and I climbed up about twenty feet along a narrow rock ledge with views of the High Peaks all around us and views DOWN to Wright Peak (elevation 4,587). Exposed, I looked up to see a climb up sheer rock to the summit above me. Being above the tree line makes me very nervous indeed. I just kept imagining my sturdy, fragile body bouncing down that giant rock. Then I thought how dumb it would be to leave my girls motherless.

I quit.

We ate lunch. I held Flynn. My husband summitted. It was only a little more, but I COULD NOT DO IT.

I thought about Strayed, Shackleton, Petrarch and Mt. Ventoux, Wordsworth’s “was it for this?” I thought about all the descriptions on the web describing this as a “fun” day hike, not too hard. I looked at all the rather unremarkable people (it is true, mostly men, mostly much younger and fitter than me) passing me on the trail. I knew that getting to the top was probably not as hard as what had come before, but I just didn’t have the emotional strength to do it. And then, I was so afraid. And I still had to get down that horrible rock wall that I’d barely scaled. Besides, this was a voluntary activity (our wedding anniversary celebration, no less), and I was having trouble seeing what this was doing for me. I had pushed myself as hard as I could, but I couldn’t quite get the bragging rights. I’m proud that I tried, I guess.

Afterwards, friends said the usual twenty-first century words of encouragement: At least you got out there! All that matters is that you tried! Good for you to go for it!

Those feel hollow. It’s not a victory. But it’s not a failure either. I’m still not quite sure how to think about it.

My husband is thinking about becoming a forty-sixer—someone who has climbed the highest forty-six peaks in the Park—and wants me to come along. He is actually genuinely proud of me, which does feel good, and he seems to want me to come along. I’m not sure.

(Algonquin is the 2nd highest mountain in New York State, at 5,115,’ not much by Western standards, but Eastern hikes start much lower, so the climb of our hike was 3014').

The Archaeology of #dalloway

Now that my edition of Mrs. Dalloway is out, I’m trying to move on to next things. Part of that means moving all my notes out of my study and into the attic. Although these notes have now been superseded by the book, I can’t quite bear to throw them away yet. Some day. Soon.

Here is the pile of, from the top down:

  • A photocopy of the first English edition of Mrs. Dalloway, with each page folded in half.
  • Photocopies of the textual apparati from the prior textual editions of the novel.
  • A box from Staples with a photocopy of the proofs with my corrections
  • The spiral binder I bought on Charlotte Street, London, in 2005 and in which I made my first pass at writing the textual apparatus
  • A photocopy of the first American edition of the novel
  • A photocopy of the first English edition in a manila folder marked “XEROX of 1E don’t mark”
  • Printout of final comments and corrections from the series editors
  • Printout of the XML proofs with my comments
  • Printout of my final submission (as a word document, not including the novel)
  • A survey of creative writing students (some things get misfiled)
  • An MA thesis on crime fiction that one of my mom’s friends thought I’d like to read (also misfiled)
  • Printout from the British Library catalogue of manuscript material relevant to Mrs. Dalloway (1 page)
  • A printout of an email to myself from 2011 listing footnotes I need to research and write
  • Printout of Jerome McGann, “What is Critical Editing”
  • A blank marketing questionnaire from Cambridge
  • A long memo from the series editors, dated February 2012, on preparing the edition, to supersede earlier versions of this memo
  • Brenda Silver, “Textual Criticism as Feminist Practice”
  • Edward Bishop, “The Alfa and the Avant-texte”
  • A manila folder with a few handwritten notes from the folks at the Virginia Woolf Society of Great Britain
  • Two pages of handwritten notes from October 2010 on The Metropolitan Traffic Manual
  • A manila folder with the 2007 version of the memo on preparing the edition
  • A cover letter for the inclusion of the photocopy of the first edition of Mrs. Dalloway, confirming my right to use it as copytext for the edition
  • Two handwritten, small format hot-pink pages, ripped from a spiral bound notebook, in purple sparkly ink, from June 2004, noting the editors’ ambitions for the edition as a whole
  • A yellow lined sheet of handwritten notes (in my hand) on a questions about preparing the edition (but so deeply in code that I can barely figure them out)
  • Permissions information from the New York Public Library
  • A 2010 letter from me requesting permission of the NYPL
  • A recipe for egg white frittata with leeks
  • A printed bibliography from London Transport Museum
  • A list of every proper name in the novel
  • Amy Smith, “Loving Maidens and Patriarchal Mothers”
  • An article printed from the web on Mrs. Dalloway
  • Rowena Fowler, “Moments and Metamorphoses”
  • Jesse Wolfe, “The Sane Woman in the Attic”
  • a chapter in mss from Yopie Prins
  • Steve Monte, “Ancients and Moderns
  • Paul Saint-Amour on antiwar prophecy
  • Mark Hussey’s handout from a panel we were on about editing Woolf in 2009
  • handwritten notes on Margot Asquith’s autobiography from 2011
  • more handwritten notes on Asquith and on traffic
  • more articles
  • a Cambridge University Press style guide
  • articles on textual editing
  • notes from my graduate assistants on proper names in the novel
  • permissions guide from the Lilly Library in Indiana
  • Sara Blair’s essay on Bloomsbury
  • the mailing address of a student in Scotland who could help me in 2007
  • Andrew Marvell, “Upon Appleton House”
  • an email from the Lilly Library
  • a list of illustrations
  • my typed notes from Brenda Silver’s edition of the Reading Notebooks
  • an article in mss on Mrs. Dalloway
  • a photocopy of some material from the Smith College archives
  • a typed list “Works I need to consult”
  • permissions form from the NYPL
  • the general editors’ preface in mss
  • email from the editor about the textual apparatus
  • Cambridge guide to proofreading
  • my working photocopy of the first English edition
  • on salmon paper, in pencil, my notes on corrections to the Raverat proofs
  • my royalty agreement (2’ in! delighted to find this one—not taking this to the attic)
  • a solicitation from Yale for money
  • one from Wellesley
  • a poem about Virginia Woolf mailed to me by a librarian friend
  • a three ring binder containing a printout of the first English Edition of Mrs. Dalloway—my working copy

What on earth should I do with all of this stuff? What do you do with your notes once a project is done?

Claudia Rankine, Citizen

I’m delighted for Claudia Rankine, whose Citizen, a book of prose poems on Trayvon Martin and racial injustice in America, is getting lots and lots of praise. I read the book—devoured it, really. It’s an amazing performance, full of contemporary art (including some work by Glenn Ligon, whose text-based paintings have long been a favorite of mine), rage, tenderness. Some of the language is so easy to understand that it hardly feels constructed at all; other pages are dense, thick, hard to read. Sometimes what’s hard is the confrontation with my own racial fears, my own biases; sometimes, she makes the text hard just by leaving you with a lot of blank space on the page. I expected it to be a great book, but I didn’t expect it to be so engaging. I’m amazed at the power with which she manages to speak hard truths about race, racism, and violence in ways that keep you reading even through the pain. We are talking James Baldwin levels of power, here.

Of all the pages in the book, the one that upset me the most, the one that sticks with me, the one that makes me wince is the one about going to a new therapist: “You have only ever spoken on the phone,” she writes. “Her house has a side gate that leads to a back entrance she uses for patients…..When the door finally opens, the woman standing there yells, at the top of her lungs, Get away from my house! What are you doing in my yard?”

With that, the trauma therapist doles out her trauma to the patient.

How do you go on from there?

The therapist apologizes, there is a break, and Rankine writes “I am so sorry, so, so sorry.”

Who is apologizing? To whom? We know the therapist was wrong—very, very wrong, and we know she apologizes, but this free standing sentence is more than that: it’s a kind of prayer for the mess we are in, an acknowledgement of how much more we will have to do before we can get out. It’s one of many apologies in the book and it’s both enough and not nearly enough. It’s beautiful.

A Woman in Berlin

You might think, given that I’m on research leave this term and the edition of Mrs. Dalloway is done, that I’d be free to read absolutely anything. And that’s true. I have given myself complete free rein to read whatever strikes my fancy.

I surprised myself by choosing the dark, disturbing, and beautifully written A Woman in Berlin: Eight Weeks in the Conquered City. This memoir, published anonymously, was written by a German woman, about 30, who lived through the Russian invasion of Berlin in 1945. One of my graduate students wrote about it, but I hadn’t had time to read it until now. She had been a journalist before the War. Her account of what she endured—rape, rape, and more rape—is harrowing, but also precise. She asks each woman she encounters “how many times were you raped?”, trying to survive in part, by continuing to do her work. She has beautiful things to say about the frustration and anxiety of living without work and continually returns to the notion that she cannot live like a plant, does not want to be a plant. As her food stores dwindle and she’s picking nettles to boil for food, she persists in her drive to be more than just a plant or, as she sometimes calls herself, a walking machine.

It is strange to read about the War from the perspective of a German woman. Strange but important: I could feel assumptions and stereotypes weakening a little as I read.

Of all the many passages that moved me in this beautiful and careful account of wartime life, the one that truly sticks in my memory is her account of the slow emergence of American flags flying from the balconies of Berlin. Every home had a Nazi flag and, she writes, unpicking the swastikas and appliquéing on a hammer and sickle to make a Russian flag was quick work. But, as the plan for Berlin to become a city of three districts emerged, citizens were encouraged to hang flags representing all the Allies. Sheets were easily available for the white bits. Scarce as blue was, it could be found. Of course, the French tricolor is not difficult. Even the Union Jack could be stitched together, with help from consulting an encyclopedia, but all those stars: “the woman with eczema asked me on the stairwell how many stars the American flag ought to have. I didn’t know for sure whether it was forty-eight or forty-nine.” Finally, she is rueful about the competence of the German housewife, even in defeat: “This could only happen in our country. An order came—I have no idea from where—to hang out the flags of the four victorious powers. And lo and behold, your average German housewife manages to conjure flags out of next to nothing.”

You can read more about the text’s complicated path to publication in this review from the Times. It was made into a film, too.

Mrs. Dalloway's Party

My with my book! My younger daughter was so bummed that she couldn't find her wolf stuffie, but the doggie made a good substitute.

On Saturday night, a few dozen friends gathered in a friend’s apartment in Upper Manhattan for a party to celebrate the publication of Mrs. Dalloway. After working on this edition for eleven years, I knew there needed to be a publication party and I knew it had to be just right. It was perfect.

But what’s uncanny and wonderful about throwing a party in honor of a book about a woman throwing a party is all the echoes of the book that inevitably occur. A few moments, then, each with an echo, distant or close, to something in the book.

Oh, the nerves of a hostess throwing a party. It happens every time before I have guests over: I wake up and, thinking about all that needs to happen before the party, it feels like the party is a folly and the most appealing way to spend the evening is not with friends but alone, knitting and listening to some soothing classical music. The anxiety is so ridiculous and so profound and has no real connection to what needs to be done. In this case, the cheese (from Murrays) was going to be delivered, the wine (from Astor) was going to be delivered, the sparkling water (Costco!) was in the basement, my friend was getting her apartment ready. All I had to do was buy the flowers. So why was I thinking of Clarissa’s fear, “Why, after all, did she do these things? Why seek pinnacles and stand drenched in fire?”

Bounty! Prosecco mostly offscreen but abundant.

I bought the flowers myself, of course.

I don’t know any Ellie Hendersons (she’s the poor aunt whom Clarissa invites only reluctantly), but the only people who get in touch with a hostess on the day of a party are the ones who have fallen sick or are snowed in. Oh, these messages make me so sad. My Miss Manners advice is to write those regrets in a message just as the party is beginning—then your regrets are first encountered in the afterglow I was so very grateful for the friend who left a voice mail telling me how excited she was to see me later and offering to bring something special. That was cheering. 

on the fire escape

My friend’s apartment had a real New York fire escape and peek-a-boo views of the George Washington Bridge. At one point, my younger daughter asked me to make an announcement about the lovely pink sunset because she was so little that no one paid attention to her.

We never envisioned dancing, but we did want music. After a little effort, we figured out how to get my friend’s turntable running and we put on a few records. The sound of classical music on vinyl coming out of an old hi-fi was perfect for a Woolf party.

I had wanted to give a toast, but there was never a moment when it seemed right to do so. If it had, I would have thanked my wonderful, and generous hostess, my family and all my friends, absent and present, who put up with my whining, my updates, my stress, my footnotes of the day, for all these years. I would also have thanked Virginia Woolf (born January 25, 1882) and my mother (also born January 25th, but more recently). Without them, no me.

But not finding the moment to give a toast is the equivalent of beating the curtains back: it means the party was a success—it didn’t need that structure for it to work. People ate and drank and were merry.  

At one point someone looked over at my older daughter, did a double take, and then realized that that beautiful girl was not just another party guest, but my daughter. We called her over and made her blush at the compliment even as we laughed at how we’d Elizabeth Dalloway-ed her.

The Prime Minister did not come, but because of the snow in the morning, I wasn’t sure if many would make it at all. With each new face—colleagues, graduate students, friends, Woolf scholars from other schools in the city, novelists, and artists, I felt that delight: oh, it’s you! Wonderful!

For there they were. My friends. Such a treat. So grateful.

OMG! #dalloway is here!

dalloway cover

I totally forgot to tell you, but it's true: my edition of Mrs. Dalloway has been published. That's eleven (count 'em) short years in the making, but it's finally here. There have been some issues with stocking it, but order away, we'll find a way to make the press print all the copies you need. I'm so excited I could burst. 

Read in 2014

2014 began with a lot of talk about #readonlywomen. I didn't want to commit to that, but it made me want to keep track of what I did read. I've never done this before and some things surprised me more than others. Here, then, without comment, is the list of the thirty books I read this year. Is that a lot? A little? I'm not sure. 

1.    Miss Anne in Harlem, Carla Kaplan (nonfiction)

2.   Going Clear, Lawrence Wright (nonfiction; ebook)

3.   Wild, Cheryl Strayed (memoir; ebook)

4.   The Woman Upstairs, Claire Messud (fiction; audiobook)

5.    Mr. Fortune’s Maggot, Sylvia Townsend Warner (fiction)

6.   Lolly Willowes, Sylvia Townsend Warner (fiction)

7.   The Golden Bowl, Henry James (fiction; audiobook)

8.   The Fiery Trial, Eric Foner (nonfiction; for teaching; skimmed final chapter)

9.   Native Speaker, Chang-Rae Lee (fiction, for teaching)

10.  Summer Will Show, Sylvia Townsend Warner (fiction; re-read)

11. The War That Ended Peace, Margaret MacMillan (nonfiction; audiobook)

12.  The Circle, Dave Eggers (fiction; audiobook)

13.   Boy, Snow, Bird, Helen Oyeyemi (fiction, for teaching)

14.  The Fault in Our Stars, John Green (fiction)

15.  Aleta Day, Francis Marion Beynon (fiction)

16.   William—an Englishman, Cecily Hamilton (fiction)

17.   All Quiet on the Western Front, Erich Maria Remarque (fiction)

18.  Stoner, John Williams (fiction)

19.   The Vacationers, Emma Straub (fiction)

20.  Harlem Hellfighters, Max Brooks (graphic novel)

21.   The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck (fiction; audiobook)

22.   Remapping the Home Front, Debra Rae Cohen (nonfiction)

23.   My Education, Susan Choi (fiction)

24.    Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn (fiction)

25.   The End of War, John Horgan (nonfiction)

26.  The Guns of August, Barbara Tuchman (nonfiction; audiobook)

27.    The Elements of Academic Style, Eric Hayot (nonfiction)

28.    Inferno, Dante (poetry; audiobook)

29.  The Secret History of Wonder Woman, Jill Lepore (nonfiction)

30.    The Paying Guests, Sarah Waters (fiction; audiobook)

Penelope Fitzgerald

Earlier this week, I met up with a friend and we went to a Penelope Fitzgerald event at Columbia. Lots of old people in attendance, but some young ones and it was really lovely to hear Hermione Lee talk about her new biography which is getting rave reviews. I bought The Blue Flower but not the biography (I've purchased about 10 books this last week and need to draw the line...).

Still, a fascinating life and I'm sure very well told. 

At University, she was expected to be a huge success and was nicknamed "Penny from Heaven." During the war she fell in love with & married an Irish charmer, Desmond Fitzgerald. He was damaged by war & took to drink. They had four children. She lived on a barge and taught at a crammer's school for kids trying to get in to Oxbridge. One day, the barge sank and the children came home from school to find their toys floating on the Thames. Fitzgerald was unusually late and "scatty" in class that day, "Sorry I'm late. My house sank," she said.

Three novelists--Alexander Chee, Ellis Avery, and Margot Livesey--each read their favorite passage. That, too, was lovely & relaxing & nice. 

Ellis taught at Fordham briefly and when my colleague Mimi Lamb died, I inherited Mimi's copy of Ellis's first book, a mediation on 9/11. It was nice to tell her so at the event.

After the event, I said hello to Hermione Lee. I told her I was a Woolf scholar and that many years ago I'd given her a ride from a campus in rural New Hampshire to a tiny NH airport, in the fog, on winding roads--"Oh! That was AWFUL! And someone had just died in a small plane crash. And I never went to a Woolf Conference again. I was Woolf'ed out."

We laughed.

Freshman Convocation 2014

[what I said to the Lincoln Center class of 2018]

Freshman convocation 2014


Good afternoon. Let me join the many others who have greeted you these past few days in saying WELCOME to Fordham and Welcome to Lincoln Center. I’m Anne Fernald, a professor of English and Women’s Studies here and the Director of first year composition at Lincoln Center. I’ve been asked to say a few ceremonial words on this occasion, to welcome you and to help you think about this, the beginning of your college career.

As it happens, I spent much of this summer thinking not about 2014 but about 1914. In particular, for a few weeks, I spent time reading Vera Brittain’s memoir, Testament of Youth. There, she describes how she spent the better part of several years begging, urging, and cajoling her parents to send her to university. A century ago, in England, you see, even families who assumed their sons would go to college often assumed their daughters needed only just enough education to get married. But Vera Brittain wanted more. Finally, finally, after many tears and many fights, her parents gave in and, along with her younger brother and her boyfriend—later, her fiancé—she headed off to Oxford just about exactly 100 years ago.

When the Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated on June 28th, 1914, she did not at first notice the news, let alone comprehend how it might change her life. In fact, her book begins with an arresting sentence, one that nicely captures how a lot of us feel when events in the world at large affect our private lives: “When the Great War broke out,” Brittain wrote, “it came to me not as a … tragedy, but as an interruption of the most exasperating kind to my personal plans” (17).

Brittain finished her first year in the shadow of the growing war, but found she was too distracted by the war to carry on with her studies. She volunteered as a nurse—one of the most demanding jobs then available to women—and served in London, Malta, and near the front lines in France before the war was over. And when the war was over, when she had lost not only her brother and her fiancé, but her two best male friends as well, what did she do?

She went back to Oxford with newfound determination. She changed her major to History, because history, she thought, might help her understand what she had lived through. She dedicated her life to peace, writing many books and working as an activist in the peace movement. She married a man similarly dedicated and their daughter, Baroness Shirley Williams, now retired, went on to become the leader of the Liberal Democratic Party in the House of Lords.

Brittain inspires me because she lived her life with tremendous purpose. Even when terrible, heart-breaking things, both global and personal, threatened to distract her from that purpose, she returned, with renewed commitment, to get her education so that she might become a person who could make a contribution to the world.

One of the goals of a Fordham education is that you become a person for others. You may decide that you can do that, like Brittain, through the study of History. You may decide that your contribution lies in Dance. Or Sociology. Or Computer Science. The field you choose will depend on some combination of your talent, your interests, and luck that will unfold over the next few years, but whatever field you choose, my hope for you is that you look around at the world, in all its wonder and in all its need, and you try to imagine how you might make one corner of it better by your thinking, your work, and your dedication.

Moving forward from 100 years ago to fifty years ago, the great novelist and essayist, James Baldwin, opened a talk to teachers with words that still resonate with us today: “Let’s begin,” Baldwin said, “by saying that we are living through a very dangerous time.  Everyone in this room is in one way or another aware of that.  We are in a revolutionary situation, no matter how unpopular that word has become in this country.  The society in which we live is desperately menaced, not by [the outside], but from within.”

Once again, we are living in a dangerous time. And in a dangerous time, it is easy, in our fear, to make choices that are safe. We can look around the world and see what is happening in Ferguson, Missouri, or rising income inequality around the country, or climate change, or the conflict in Gaza, or the rise of ISIS and, in our fear, choose to study something that will protect us, earn us lots of money, and buy us the security not to make a change.

I want, instead, to exhort you to look into these places of darkness without fear. I want you to choose one and to find a way to make yourself a source of light and hope in that darkness. After all, moments like these, full of uncertainty and pain, are also moments of great possibility. I want you to seize that possibility, to imagine that it is yours. It is yours.

“The future is dark,” wrote Virginia Woolf during the War, “which is the best thing the future can be, I think.” It’s a strange thing to say, but Brittain, Baldwin, and Woolf all saw that moments of great uncertainty open up possibilities for amazing, even revolutionary change.

The task that lies before you now is to educate yourself, to make yourself into an expert in one thing, so that, a few years from now, with your degree in hand, you can not only support yourself but imagine ways to do so while remaking the world into the better one that we so urgently need.

This will not be easy. Nor will it be glamorous. In fact, you will need to give up some easy fun in the pursuit of a longer term goal. If you truly want to get an education, you will need to train yourself away from some of the distractions of the world, to recognize that yes, you can go to a party, but not every night, that yes, you can belong to a club, but not all the clubs. I love CandyCrush, too, but for me to finish the book I’ve been working on for the past ten years, I have had to put my phone away once in a while.

We live in a thrilling world, one full of evil and danger and also full of great joy and we know this because every time we look down at our devices, every time we pass a monitor, every time we turn on our tablets and laptops, we can see what is happening anywhere in the world. But that glorious instant access comes at a price. We skim and click, we text, forward, like, and share, but rarely do we ask ourselves to pause and think.

Your college education is the moment to learn how to pause and think, to consider the world around you, with all its wonder and all its flaws, and to let that world reshape your determination to get an education. That means training and practicing, remembering how to be still and just read--doing nothing other than reading--for longer and longer stretches of time.

James Baldwin learned this, growing up in Harlem and discovering French literature in the libraries there. From that literature he learned about possibilities beyond Harlem and beyond the racism of the United States:  the “sense of ‘If I can do it, I may do it.’” Like James Baldwin, you can and you may.  I want you to give yourselves that chance: to work hard and turn yourselves into people who can do the great things you most want to do and then to give yourselves permission to do so.

We—your professors, your deans, your advisors, R.A.’s, custodians, cooks, and friends—are all here to help you do that. We are so happy that you are here to begin your journey. Welcome.

On war writing (stray thoughts)

Uncle Al

Uncle Al

A challenge lies in expanding what war is without diminishing or valuing one experience over another.  Once, at a small family dinner which included a guest who was a veteran of World War II, the guest was pressed—perhaps by me (I was in college at the time)—to tell the story of his time in the war. The guest told about the steel plate in his head. My Uncle Al hesitated, then said that he had served in the War, too. He was in the military police in France, checking on the security of villages about ten miles behind the front lines, advancing as the Americans liberated village after village. By the time he arrived, there was dancing in the streets, the wine was flowing, and all the girls were eager to kiss the Americans. His war, he felt, wasn’t the war. He admitted that he almost never told the story. An uncle on the other side served, too, but as a chaplain in the Pacific, far from combat. He, too, felt that he didn’t have a story to tell, that his war was not the war. Perhaps this says something about war experiences. No one’s war is the war and, in teaching representations of war we need to keep that observation at the fore.

Vera Brittain, Testament of Youth (1933)

“When the Great War broke out, it came to me not as a superlative tragedy,

but as an interruption of the most exasperating kind to my personal plans.” (17)

I meant to tell you all about this in July, but well, #dalloway and life intervened. Nonetheless, here I go:

Brittain as a V.A.D. nurse, 1915

Brittain as a V.A.D. nurse, 1915

Vera Brittain writes with tremendous care about prize day at her brother’s school when she was falling in love with Ronald Leighton, who became her fiancé. It goes on and on—her floaty dress with the pink spots, her pretty hat—and then she explains that she spends so much time on this because it was “the one perfect summer idyll” of my life. Etched, every moment of it, in memory. Like the moment in The Hours where Clarissa thinks this is the beginning of happiness only to realize, oh!, that was my moment of happiness. What’s lovely and different about the Brittain is that she’s writing from such a kindly, matronly perspective—she’s generous to the whole world that’s past—including her benighted self. So that her observation that she didn’t attend to the assassination of the archduke of whom she had never heard in a nation she could not find on the map is perfectly calibrated to be patient with the individual but damning of the society. She is so smart on the perils of ignorance. What’s remarkable about Testament of Youth is that it reproduces at once her memory and her post-war perspective.

Testament of Youth documents how the effects of the war rippled out beyond the soldiers. The description of her, still in provincial England, going to a neighboring town and hearing rumors and seeing a trainload of Russian soldiers, and coming home bursting with the news only to find the same news greeting her in Buxton is terrific. It offers a vivid picture of what it feels like to experience a bit of news of war first hand, not even yet knowing who among your family, will have had the same experience. She tells the story of her nurses training when a girl got mad at Brittain for tucking her into the hospital bed a little too vigorously and wrinkling the frills in her knickers. Such silliness in retrospect, but for that girl, at that moment, the heart of her life and Brittain’s book gains its effect by asking us to think that through. She was a young woman in a world where pretty girls worried about the frills on their knickers. Then: war. Her method shows—and asks us to bear—some compassion for that poor idiotic girl, too, a girl who surely suffered, too, somehow. She certainly was not facing five easy years any more than anyone in England from 1914-1919.

She is wonderfully funny on how difficult it was to be alone with a boy in those days—how her aunt stuck to her like a limpet, how Leighton came shopping—even to buy underwear—with them, just for the pleasure of being together. She goes on to explain how hard it was to arrange to meet a man for a few unsupervised hours. She and other middle class girls would be delivered to a train station, commanded to telegraph upon their arrival at the destination. Eventually, she concocted a story about not wanting to run into certain classmates at one junction so she could meet Leighton at another.

One of the lessons that Brittain seems to want us to take away is something about paying attention. This emerges as a theme in Cecily Hamilton’s book, too. Silly goose, she seems to say of herself, I ought to have known to attend to that. But what is the lesson for us? What is the crisis that will, as in the passage she quotes from Daniel Deronda, bring us into confrontation with history? Is it the riots among the poor in Brazil? Climate change? The emergence of the Islamic State? Or is it some tiny ripple that most of us have not yet imagined, some slight, some rude inattention we have visited upon Canada or Kansas that will set the whole thing ablaze?

You can read a biography of Brittain by the Peace Pledge Union here. If you'd like to read other reconsiderations of Testament of Youth, this one at The Guardian is wonderful. And here is another

Max Brooks (illus. Canaan White): The Harlem Hellfighters

The great World War One historian Michael Neiberg acknowledges that American students (and Americans in general) know far, far less about World War One than their European peers. And no wonder: U.S. participation in that war was brief, casualties were not high, and the battles were all overseas. Still, in this centenary period, in this war-torn world of 2014, we might do well to educate ourselves a little.

After a billion years of studying British modernism and Mrs. Dalloway, I’ve learned more about the War than many and I’m looking forward to teaching my class on the Literature of World War One this fall. I’ve been reading up on the war all summer, as my infrequent recent blog posts suggest.

I wanted to find some material on race and the war. There is a lot of great historical material emerging now on Chinese workers and African soldiers, but for a literature class, choices are harder. And what about a straight up story about the African-Americans who fought. The main character in Claude McKay’s Home to Harlem is a deserter; a main character in Jessie Fauset’s There is Confusion fights heroically and recognizes a relative in a white man who shares his surname. Both of these novels capture the two important things I know and want my students to know about the War: that black soldiers served bravely and that they were very, very poorly treated indeed. However, in the context of these novels, the war is just a small part. How can I convey the texture of this story in the limited time I have.

One of the great discoveries of the summer was Max Brooks’ book on the 369th Infantry Regiment, an African American unit from New York, dubbed the Harlem Hellfighters by the Germans who fought them. This graphic historical fiction is so gripping and heartbreaking. It tells, in miniature, a story that you might be able to guess from what you know of our shameful treatment of heroic black soldiers in World War Two, but this is a forgotten bit of history that is worth a few hours of your time. If you or a young person in your life wants to read one short exciting thing about the War, I strongly recommend it.

Both Brooks (who is white) and White (who is black) took great care to be as accurate as possible in their renderings of the stories here. The illustrations are absolutely gripping and, paired with Brooks’ elegant text, which quotes liberally from W. E. B. DuBois and other historical documents, makes the whole thing a thrilling read. Although the main character is fictional, other characters are real, including jazz musician James Reese Europe who paved the way for Duke Ellington and for jazz in France; Eugene Jaques Bullard, who fought in both World Wars as a pilot in the French Army; and Henry Johnson, the first American (black or white) to receive the French Croix de Guerre. Their photographs and information on sources appear in the back of the book.

I’m sorry that the stories of racism are so familiar and predictable—the officer’s club suddenly closed to black men, the racism the New York soldiers (from across the state) experienced training in the South, the denial of a ticker tape parade. Most amazing to me—and most heartbreaking in light of Ferguson, MO and open carry—is the fact that the U.S. Army denied rifles to the 369th while providing free rifles to any gun club, just in case the gun clubs might be called up. So, actual soldiers were denied weapons. What I love—and what Brooks and White clearly delight in telling—is how the soldiers of the 369th made up fake gun clubs from all over the state and thus requested and received the guns they should have had in the first place.

It’s just terrific. I hear that Will Smith is talking to Brooks about a film. Let’s hope

William—An Englishman by Cicely Hamilton (1919)

William—An Englishman is a pitiless book. “Pitiless” is not a word I often use, but it came to me when reading this tale of a couple of ordinary bourgeois bohemians on honeymoon in Belgium in August 1914. Hoping for a quiet three weeks, they avoid the papers until it is too late: the War breaks out and William of the title and his bride are caught behind German lines. It’s the first Persephone Book and remains a bestseller for them.

William and Griselda’s first encounters with violence are pitiless and painful to read. The young couple are so appealing, so naïve, so idiotic, and so very like many of us who have never experienced war. It’s an uncomfortable reading experience, and I oscillated between thinking that this discomfort was a gimmick and thinking that it made the book deeply moving and effective as war literature.

A moment that struck me as particularly terrible is also one of the subtler moments of the book. William and his wife have been taken prisoner, forced to witness the assassination of several Belgians, and then separated. Forced to repair the railway lines, William breaks free during a moment of chaos and goes house to house in search of his wife. He finds her, terrified, cowering in the upper room of one of the village houses, a shadow of her formerly brave, suffragette self:

His heart cried out to him that she had struggled merely as a captive, had been restrained by brute force from escaping—but his own eyes had seen that she turned from him as if there was a barrier between them, as if there was something to hide that she yet wished him to know…

And suddenly, as Hamilton writes a few sentences later, seeing the effect of a sexual assault on his wife, the phrase “licentious soldiery” takes on meaning.

I cannot quite say, with Nicola Beauman (the publisher & author of the preface), that this is a masterpiece. I will say that it held my attention, disturbed me, made me think about war and how we talk about war from our safe home. The satire on Bloomsbury socialism and the way that suffragettes spoke of their struggle as a kind of Civil War is pretty devastating.

The book falls apart at the end. And yet, even there, William’s upsetting encounter with a traumatized soldier who must narrate all that frightens him about the air raid they must endure together is terrific and terrifying and claustrophobic in all the right ways.

Plus, the fact that Hamilton wrote this in her tent during war service (after a few years as a volunteer in a Scottish hospital, she became an organizer for concerts at the front) adds much to the book: I share Beauman’s sense that the book is full of an amazing, quiet intensity.

Some of the writing is very beautiful. All of it is strong—although I occasionally wished she would cease explaining and essaying, I almost never flinched at a misstep.

I do not know if I will teach it in the fall in my World War One class or not.

Aleta Day by Francis Marion Beynon (1919)

For a new course this fall on the Literature of World War One, I’m reading around, looking at chestnuts worth a fresh glance (and yes, I’m working my way through Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth [1933] with great pleasure) and some less-well known texts that offer a new perspective on the war.

Yesterday and early this morning, I read Francis Marion Beynon’s Aleta Day (1919; Broadview Press). It’s an autobiographical novel about a pacifist woman’s experience of the war, set entirely in Winnipeg. The opening chapters about a prairie childhood with strict parents (and an abusive father) are really terrific, lovely spare prairie prose (like Munro or Cather or Mildred Walker). From the first page:

It is wonderful how early one can be made into a coward. I was one at five. I remember a golden summer morning when the milk pans were all about the kitchen and flies were buzzing between them and the window. Jean was tugging at my hair and I slapped her hands and said, “Darn you, stop that.”

Mother’s portly figure revolved until she was facing me.  “What did you say, Aleta?” she demanded sharply.

The scene goes on—it makes up the whole of the first chapter in this very short, many-chaptered book—to give an account of her beating and her false apology for saying “darn”: “I was still ashamed to meet the big wind when I went out to play, and I tried to show him I was not a coward by shaking my little fist at the house and shouting, ‘I’m not sorry, and I hate you—I hate you—I hate you.’”

About halfway through the book, the war breaks out, testing her blossoming romance with a fellow journalist, a Scotsman and a Tory. The writing is less good here, but the book is just as interesting, even as the plot shades into melodrama (McNair drinks; McNair has a wife from a youthful marriage; he enlists; he disapproves of her suffragism). What’s valuable, is the pains that Beynon goes to to give an account of the hounding and public shaming her heroine faces as a pacifist. (According to the too-brief preface, Beynon herself was forced to resign from the newspaper she worked for because of her views.) The preservation of the taunting rhymes and Aleta’s pained and sincere efforts to write to her lover, at the front, an explanation of why, though she loves him dearly, she must speak out against war, are terrific:

Said the Pacifist, ‘He only killed my brother, and Resistance isn’t right!”

Said the Pacifist, “He only kicked my mother, and it’s very wrong to fight!”

I think it’s wicked rather, to defend an aged father, for it might end in a quarrel.

If a Hun assaults your sister (said the gentle Pacifister), turn you other sister to him and be moral.

Isn’t that stunning? I’ve seen the scenes—in Downton Abbey, for a start—of women passing out white feathers, but this offensive little bit of doggerel captures something of the rage against the pacifists that I haven’t read much of, so steeped in Bloomsbury pacifism have I been.

In Memoriam: Walter Dean Myers

Walter Dean Myers died today at 76.

As it happens, my daughters, 8 and 11, are reading about him now. Sharon Creech’s novel in poems Love that Dog is about a reluctant reader and writer who comes to see the power of poetry by reading Walter Dean Myers’ poem, “Love that Boy.”

Just this morning, my older daughter was telling me, again, the plot of the book. She’d been enthusiastic about it three years ago when she read it in school and not, reading it to her sister, a less precocious reader, she’s enjoying it all over again.

The story hinges on a boy forced to write poetry in a unit in school. Walter Dean Myers work lies at the heart of his transformation from reluctant reader into proud poet.

The best tribute on a writer’s passing is to read his work, so do that first. Then, if you have a young reader in your life, I recommend Love that Dog.

Or, we can just start here (the poem, which I grabbed from here, is reprinted in Creech’s book):

Love That Boy by Walter Dean Myers
Love that boy,
like a rabbit loves to run
I said I love that boy
like a rabbit loves to run
Love to call him in the morning
love to call him
"Hey there, son!"

He walk like his Grandpa,
Grins like his Uncle Ben.
I said he walk like his Grandpa,
And grins like his Uncle Ben.
Grins when he’s happy,
When he sad, he grins again.

His mama like to hold him,
Like to feed him cherry pie.
I said his mama like to hold him.
Like to feed him that cherry pie.
She can have him now,
I’ll get him by and by

He got long roads to walk down
Before the setting sun.
I said he got a long, long road to walk down
Before the setting sun.
He’ll be a long stride walker,
And a good man before he done.

The Gods Laughed

Last week was spring break, but it wasn’t much of a vacation. In fact, I spent the second weekend of the break commuting, somewhat frantically, to the ACLA (the American Comparative Literature Association) meeting at NYU. I was frantic because my seminar met at 8:30 AM Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, and, those first two days, my husband was out of town at another meeting.

But, I got a ride into the city on Saturday and Sunday and, though I lay awake worrying about logistics, I comforted myself with the thought that I’m not as nuts as Robin Schulte describes herself as being in Overwhelmed, a book I’m reading since I complained of it (being overwhelmed) on facebook. I was even beginning to think that I was doing it. I am scholar-mom, hear me roar!

Then came the seminar. Organized by two of my graduate students—one of whom has moved on to greener pastures—it was a delight. There were twelve papers on neglected women writers and the twelve of us sat there, for two hours every morning, talking about our specific writers and the theory and practice of recovering women. I gave a paper on Gertrude Stein (not forgotten) and Goodnight Moon (also not forgotten), talking about how few people think of Margaret Wise Brown as a writer because she wrote for people who can’t read. Virginia Woolf was hardly mentioned at all. That, in itself was a stunning, magical delight for me.

And, by the end of the conference I felt like I can do this! I can move forward with my writing! My ideas are good! I even let myself think these kind thoughts about myself for a while, let myself feel the possibility and the power.

Then, came Monday. The gods must have heard my burp of confidence, because I had a 2-hour conversation with my general editor at Cambridge about all the things I need to do still before Mrs. Dalloway can move forward. All correct; all good ideas; all smart; all do-able in the next two or three weeks. Not one of them do I want to do; though I will do them all.

That was just the amuse-bouche. On Tuesday, my slow Mac at work became my inaccessible Mac. Instead of checking my email, I was reformatting an external hard drive to make it mac-compatible so I could back up my files so IT could reformat the whole machine. I met with two plagiarists. I got a text from the cleaning lady to say "I"m at your house. Where is the key?" I got a call from my daughter to say that her braces had come loose and there was a wire hanging loose in her mouth. Could I come home and take her to the orthodontist?

I do not, at the moment, feel like I can do it all.

I can’t go on. I’ll go on.