And oh, the momentum of your thoughts, and of your prose.

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“Keep Miss Welty Weird”

 

Dear Miss Welty:

I guess I’m writing you, a “Dead Author,” to express my thankfulness that in your case that phrase doesn’t fully apply. I mean, sure, yes, I acknowledge that you’re no longer a living, breathing, aboveground Mississippian—but a Dead Author, as opposed to a Dead Person, is one who’s no longer read and delighted at and grappled with and mulled over, and I’m here to say that that’s not the case, at least wherever I can help it, and to plump for it never to be the case.

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“fierce and funny and wondrous-strange”

I made a mistake along these lines once, back in 1998. You were still a Living Person, but the Library of America seemed to declare you, three years prematurely, a Dead Author. What were they doing, I wondered, giving you the full grand LoA treatment that should be reserved for the Canon of the Dead: glossy black cover, your name in an elegant script; miraculous tight binding that makes the books little bricks, little tombstones along a shelf; that paper not onionskin but kinda-sorta in the direction of onionskinny; and, most of all, the built-in ribbon of bookmark like the one in my grandmother’s Bible? I was indignant on your behalf. No doubt you were frail, given that you were coming up on ninety, and I had no idea about the likelihood of your ever writing again and thus no way of arguing against the logic of what they did. But it seemed at least a little, you know, icky—like they were chivvying you toward the door, a literary instance of “Here’s your hat what’s your hurry?” Did they not realize that you must embalm before you immortalize?

But the older I get, the more I think that, unseemly as it was, they might have had it right. The Library of America wasn’t as skittish or as sentimental as I was about the distinction between person and author. They were acting early on the idea that, as Nabokov expressed it in his early novella The Eye (if you were a live person instead of merely a live author, I’d suggest that you read or reread it, if you felt inclined, so that we might—if you’d consent—chat about it one afternoon next week), “After death human thought lives on by momentum.” They couldn’t save you from small-d death, but they could forestall the damn capital. They had their eye on what you might call an objective of the longer term.

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“fuck-you shadow”

And oh, the momentum of your thoughts, and of your prose. That momentum has swept me along for fifteen years without you now, and I expect it will carry me for as long as I can sidestep the reaper myself. I’ll do my best to pass it on, too.

I balk at bumper stickers like “Keep Austin Weird” (or Keep Asheville Weird, or keep weird whatever thing we like to believe in the originality of but see slipping away, changing, perhaps rubbed away by veneration like those old saints’ statues whose noses first get shiny and then get gone), but I had occasion—honestly, the way I saw it, what I had was excuse—to write an essay for The Oxford American a few years ago that might have been titled “Keep Miss Welty Weird.” There are so many people these days who seem to think of you as having been a kind of quaint, elegant, starchy, and above all elderly southern lady, rather than the bold and playful young woman whose fuck-you shadow haunts the foreground of some of those amazing WPA photographs, rather than the woman, fierce and funny and wondrous-strange, who wrote stories like “No Place for You, My Love.”

I read a passage today in Charles Portis’s Norwood in which he says of a cage for a fortune-telling chicken that “it had once served as a humane catch-‘em-alive mink trap, and in fact no mink had ever entered it, such was its humanity.” For some reason that put me in mind of you . . . and in my way of reckoning, it thus saved you both, a little. Don’t think, though, that I’m claiming such thinking is selfless, much less heroic; I think about you because it saves me, too.

Yours,

Michael Griffith

 

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[This is the latest post in the new Letters to Dead Authors series.]

michael-griffithMichael Griffith’s books are Trophy, Bibliophilia: A Novella and Stories and Spikes: A Novel; his fiction and nonfiction have appeared in New England Review, Salmagundi, Oxford American, Southwest Review, Five Points, Virginia Quarterly Review, Golf World, and The Washington Post, among other periodicals. Formerly Associate Editor of the Southern Review, he is now Associate Professor of English at the University of Cincinnati and Fiction Editor of the Cincinnati Review. He is also the Editor of Yellow Shoe Fiction, an original-fiction series from LSU Press.

Eudora Alice Welty (April 13, 1909 – July 23, 2001) was an American short story writer and novelist who wrote about the American South. Her novel The Optimist’s Daughter won the Pulitzer Prize in 1973. Welty was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, among numerous awards including the Order of the South. She was the first living author to have her works published by the Library of America. While Welty worked as a publicity agent for the Works Progress Administration, she took photographs of people from all economic and social classes in her spare time. From the early 1930s, her photographs show Mississippi’s rural poor and the effects of the Great Depression. (wikipedia)

…there you were, insecure and filled with longing as I was for the same reason, willing to forego comfort, to risk failure and absurdity, to do the preposterous thing that no one really wanted us to do…

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Dear Larry,

I’m calling you Larry because you’re dead–how could you mind? I’d intended to write you while you lived, but then you went and died, too soon, at the age of 53, surprising us all I’m guessing. I first learned about your work when I was living in Maryland, a few years before I decided to attend graduate school for creative writing. The Washington Post ran an article about you and your most recent book, On Fire. I was attracted to the book and your story, probably the way many people are attracted to the lives and stories that can never be theirs. As a child, I had fantasized about doing boy things–playing baseball, fighting fires, flying planes–but I was not the kind of girl to push her way into worlds where she wasn’t welcome (let’s leave aside the issue of skill and potential for success). I was timid but sassy enough to be grumpy about all the places I couldn’t go.

GetFileAttachmentAnyway, I bought your book for my firefighter brother, but I read it before I gave it to him. I fell in love with your voice, your wry humor, the way you sounded so settled and comfortable in your own skin; you had nothing to prove. I don’t know if that’s how you were in life, but that’s how you sounded on the page.

Then I fell in love with your beautiful stories in Big Bad Love. The voice again (“My dog died,” the dry humor, the spot-on drunk and heavily accented Mississippi dialogue (“‘Vemma. You know Vemma?’ “Velma? Velma White?’…’Vemma’s gossum good pussy'”). The desire plaguing your characters transcended gender. Leon Barlow, the aspiring writer of “92 Days,” kept on, even though he’d lost his family, his job, and his money. I could be Leon Barlow–you were Leon Barlow, before you became Larry Brown, author, some time after Larry Brown, United States Marine and Larry Brown, Oxford, Mississippi firefighter. A space and persona we both could inhabit: there you were, insecure and filled with longing as I was for the same reason, willing to forego comfort, to risk failure and absurdity, to do the preposterous thing that no one really wanted us to do; the world doesn’t beg would-be writers to write in the same way it encourages students into accountancy, nursing, teaching. You might have been a more unlikely writer than I, but you came from that magic town of storied storytellers, and surely no one could be very surprised to find you enchanted.

Shortly after your death, my husband and I had a minor car accident in Cumberland, Maryland. We weren’t hurt, but our car was. Without phones or cash, we banged on the door of the Moose Lodge (now defunct, replaced by a carpet warehouse). Inside, the bar manager, Budroe, let us use his phone (wallpaper: Golden Retriever) and gave us beers. The story I set in Cumberland features a dead character named Larry and a narrator trying to cope with his demise. They’d been having an affair. At the end, she’s left holding a crock of baked beans, shut out of the community, understanding that she needs to move on. She’s been stalled, you see, occupying space that didn’t belong to her. The fantasies, so vivid! Other people’s jobs, lives, spouses, writing prompts. I still adore your prose, and I embarrass myself by reading aloud to my students the drunk dialogue in “92 Days,” except I’m so besotted with your words that truly I feel no shame. Thank you for the joy, and thank you for being one of my literary fathers. I would never admit that last bit, if you were still living, pride being what it is.

Yours,

Margaret Luongo

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[This is the third post in the new Letters to Dead Authors series.]

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Margaret Luongo

Margaret Luongo is a short story writer who teaches creative writing and contemporary fiction at Miami of Ohio. Her stories have appeared in Tin House, The Cincinnati Review, Granta.com, The Pushcart Prize anthology and elsewhere. She is the author of two story collections, If the Heart is Lean (2008) and History of Art (2016), both published by LSU Press. A discussion of her new collection can be found here.

Larry Brown (1951-2004) is a writer from Oxford, Mississippi, who wrote two story collections, six novels, and two books of nonfiction. His sixth novel, A Miracle of Catfish, was published, unfinished, after his death. Before becoming a writer, Brown failed a high school english course, served two years in the Marine Corps and seventeen years as a firefighter in the Oxford City fire department. His obituary can be found here.

“I also didn’t know back then how difficult it is to write the way you did. To write like you’re whispering into the reader’s ear rather than like you’re screaming into it. You made it look so easy I didn’t understand what an accomplishment that really was.”

Dear Nora,

I want to apologize. I want to apologize for not appreciating you enough when I was young.

Sure, I loved When Harry Met Sally as much as everyone else in America did, but, when it came out, I don’t think I understood the significance of what you were doing. At the age of nineteen, I just thought, Wow, I loved that movie. And, of course, I thought the same thing any young person thinks when they see or read something that makes them feel they’ve gotten a glimpse of what real grown-up love looks like. I thought, I want to grow up. I want to fall in love. I want a relationship like that. What I didn’t think about after I saw When Harry Met Sally or any of your other early movies—because I didn’t know—was the fact that you were one of only a handful of women writing and making movies for major Hollywood studios and that you were doing so in an industry that was and still is totally dominated by men. I know that now (in truth, I’ve known it for several years), but I’m sorry I didn’t appreciate your accomplishments sooner.

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Molly McCaffrey at 19, not yet appreciating Ephron

I did know I liked your female characters. I liked Sally. I liked Annie and Becky. I rooted for Rachel. I admired the hell out of Karen Silkwood. And I always loved Julia. I also knew I could relate to these women. But I wasn’t smart enough back then—remember I was still a teenager when I was first introduced to your work—to recognize how rare it was to find a female lead in a movie whom I liked or to whom I could relate. I thought there would be plenty of them. But, boy, was I wrong. Now I know how wrong I was. Now I know how hard it is to encounter a strong, independent female lead in a film, and I want to thank you for giving me so many over the years.

I also didn’t know back then how difficult it is to write the way you did. To write like you’re whispering into the reader’s ear rather than like you’re screaming into it. To write about things as simultaneously mundane and vital as finding the right apartment or raising your kids. You made it look so easy that I didn’t understand what an accomplishment that really was. And after seven years of studying writing in graduate school—seven years, Nora!—I finally learned that the way you wrote isn’t something we should take for granted. Not only does writing like that not come easy, it also takes courage to have the kind of authorial voice that doesn’t say, Hey, look at me, I’m smarter than everyone else! Or Hey, look at me! What I’m writing about is so big and important! No, you wrote in a regular way about regular things, and I’m sorry, too, that I didn’t give you enough credit for that when I was younger.

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Nora Ephron

I certainly didn’t know how hard it was to get people to pay attention to stories about women because I grew up during the height of the women’s movement with a mother who dragged me to every feminist play or talk she could find. So, when I was young, it felt like those stories were everywhere. And I thought they always would be. But then I grew up and learned that not every woman wanted to be called a feminist, and I understood how lucky I was to have women like you (and my mother) in my life.

I guess what I’m saying is I didn’t know how difficult it would be just to be myself. And that’s why I so appreciate having a role model who has shown me how to do just that. Because you were always yourself, Nora—as a writer, as a spouse, as a mother, as a person. Sometimes when I worry about my career (which is really most of the time), I think about women like you who stayed true to themselves and still made it, and, for a few short minutes, I feel better about my future.

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Molly McCaffrey today

But I know all of that now—and have known it for some time, definitely since we lost you at far too young an age—and that’s why I feel compelled to write to you today. Yes, to apologize for not realizing it sooner. But also to thank you.

Thank you, Nora Ephron, for being one of the first women to write about strong, independent women who reminded me of myself. Thank you for being a woman who was willing to brave the Hollywood studio system. Thank you for being courageous enough to write in a way that speaks directly to your audience. Thank you for being a wonderful role model for both writers and women.

Thank you.

Molly McCaffrey

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[This is the second post in the new Letters to Dead Authors series.]

You Belong to Us front cover smallMolly McCaffrey is the author of You Belong to Us (memoir) and How to Survive Graduate School & Other Disasters (stories) and the founder of I Will Not Diet, a blog devoted to healthy living and body acceptance. She is also the co-editor of Commutability: Stories about the Journey from Here to There and the forthcoming Stuck in the Middle: Writing that Holds You in Suspense. She lives in Bowling Green, Kentucky, with her husband, David Bell. [Click here to learn more about How Molly McCaffrey Became a Writer.]

Nora Ephron was one of the most accomplished screenwriters of her time. She wrote and directed sixteen movies, including Silkwood (1983), When Harry Met Sally (1989), Sleepless in Seattle (1993), and Julie & Julia, all of which were nominated for Academy Awards. She also wrote two plays and eight books, both fiction and nonfiction. Ephron began her career as a White House intern during JFK’s presidency and then worked as a journalist for the New York Post. She continued to write for various news organizations, including Esquire, Cosmo, The New York Times, and The Huffington Post, until her 2012 death at the age of 71 from complications related to leukemia. She was married three times, and her second marriage to Carl Bernstein was the basis for her novel Heartburn, which was adapted to a film starring Meryl Strep and Jack Nicholson. Her third marriage to screenwriter Nicholas Pileggi was the one that lasted, prompting her to write, “Secret to life, marry an Italian” for Not Quite What I Was Planning: Six-Word Memoirs by Writers Famous and Obscure. Ephron was also the mother of two children, one of whom made a documentary about his mother’s life called Everything is Copy, which is now showing on HBO.

Did you think about those years in Indiana so far away now in time and space?
Back then and back there, what was it you felt, so far away in time and space, reading Hesiod and Horace in the garden, marching in your imagination with Xenophon’s 10,000 to the sea?

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Martone: “I grew up playing on Hamilton land in Hamilton Park. Edith’s sister Alice was one of the first woman MDs graduated from Yale. My Mother led the movement to have monumental statues erected in their honor in a downtown Fort Wayne park. They are a few of the few monumental statues of women in the country.”

 

Dear Miss Hamilton,

Where are you? In 1957, 90 years old, you are berthed in The Delphi Suite of the Greek luxury liner the S.S. Queen Frederika at sea en route to Athens where your translation of Aeschylus’s Prometheus Bound will be performed at the Herodes Atticus beneath the Acropolis. You are expecting Blanche Yurka, the actor cast as Io, who will broach the delicate subject of abbreviating the play before the performance. I know you will say Cut! All the geography can go. You amaze me. That, you, the author, well, you are not the author, Aeschylus is of course the author, the translator then, you the translator would so severely cut her words astonishes me. This description of a city, a town, this mountain range here, all of it was long ago local color, parochial interest. You would cut all of it!

Miss Yurka played a cow, a cow in such a classic theatrical production. Such stock livestock is always a result of fallout between Zeus who desires, it seems, anyone and everyone and Hera the constantly betrayed and vengeful wife. Hera was known as the ”Cow-eyed One” so perhaps being a bovine was not that bad? But the speeches are only mooing travelogues of the cow’s flight to Asia, the gadfly stinging her on. It reads almost like modern advertising. “Be sure to stop at this sacred grove.” “This water nymph is standing by to help you.” “That temple is open late.” No, these bits and pieces were all expendable.

Prometheus Bound is the actors’ worst nightmare, the director’s dead end. There is no action! It is like this letter to you there in the Delphi Suite on the SS Queen Frederika. Out to sea, indeed. Nothing going on but making speeches about speeches. Where is the action to act in that? The play is merely a bundle of recitations—don’t get me wrong these speeches contain some of the most magnificent poetry ever written and its themes are universal, timeless—with little drama. Prometheus, is shackled to a mountain right from the start—very hard to act when wrapped in chains—though I bet those new method actors would want to give it a go with their eyebrows alone. Miss Yurka will have a rough enough time engaging the audience with a stock-still cow decked out in horns just trying to keep her balance on buskin hooves and mooing out a pretty speech.

You must have been flattered, moved that this translation will be performed there at the Herodes Atticus, at the foot of the Acropolis, but I am surprised that this was the play chosen. Think, this play was written twenty-five hundred years ago and translated by this 90-year-old woman from, of all places, Indiana, about as far away from Acadia as one could get.

But there, in a place called Fort Wayne, you read ancient Greek and Latin, Hebrew and even a little Sanskrit in your father’s library. Rustic? Bucolic? You bet. No schools to speak of then. It was after the war, yes, the Civil War, in the shadow of all those depressions, economic, emotional. And yes, there were cows, like Dame Io, roaming the downtown streets, the front yards. And you put on your own plays, with your sisters and brother, your own actors and audience.

Did you think about those years in Indiana so far away now in time and space? Back then and back there, what was it you felt, so far away in time and space, reading Hesiod and Horace in the garden, marching in your imagination with Xenophon’s 10,000 to the sea?

And there you were, there in the Delphi suite, looking back into the past, looking forward to Athens and this grand performance you cut down to size.

You will be led to the stage. The king of Greece will give you some sort of cross. The Stoa above the theater, the Parthenon and the Temple of Zeus will be flooded with lights for the first time. And you will be made a Citizen of Athens. A Citizen of Athens, of the city you have for so long loved as much as your own country. A piece of paper from the mayor. It will be “the proudest moment of your life” or some such. Another speech. Speeches are only speech we must remember. But we also will never forget the stages, the places the speech is given. The context. The where. The where where.

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[This is the very first post in the very new series, Letters to Dead Authors.]

Michael Martone was born in Fort Wayne, Indiana, and is the author of several books, including Four for a Quarter, Michael Martone, and The Blue Guide to Indiana. He’s happy that, now, his computer actually counts the number of words allotted (he has been given 75) to tell his life story, like robotic Fates, measuring out the length of line, there, at the bottom of window frame, cutting him off at the exact

Describing her Ft. Wayne, Indiana childhood, Edith Hamilton said, “My father was well-to-do, but he wasn’t interested in making money; he was interested in making people use their minds.” And so he taught her the classics. In 1958 Life magazine called Edith Hamilton the “greatest living woman classicist.” Famous for her translations of Greek myths, she became an honorary citizen of Athens in 1957 at the age of 90. 

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I am very excited to announce a new blog series: LETTERS TO DEAD AUTHORS

It will be a weekly(ish) series in which today’s writers compose Letters – homages, lamentations, arguments, thank-yous, etc. – to Dead Authors.

This new series is inspired by Andrew Lang’s 1866 book (photographed above and below) that I found in my campus library, and is in celebration of my forthcoming book that includes letters to the dead author, Božena Němcová. (The Bitter Life of Božena Němcová is forthcoming from Rose Metal Press in fall 2016.)

The first letter will come from MICHAEL MARTONE and will post this weekend.

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WHY DEAD AUTHORS?
In this 1866 letter to the already dead W. M. Thackeray, Andrew Lang writes of all the things that stand in the way of writing to living authors – such as being accused of being a “parasite” or of “vex[ing] a rival”- and makes the case for the freedom he feels in writing letters to dead authors:

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Love from my bookshelf

February 14, 2016 — 6 Comments

That’s what I thought love would be like.
Reading Whitman and fighting the urge not to express your aesthetic superiority.

-Paul Beatty,
Slumberland

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Some passages about love in the books I’m reading lately:

From The Diary of Frida Kahlo, a letter to Diego:

Diego.
Nothing compares to your hands
nothing like the green-gold of
your eyes. My body is filled
with you for days and days. you are
the mirror of the night. the vio-
lent flash of lightning. the
dampness of the earth.
…All my joy
is to feel life spring from
your flower-fountain that mine
keeps to fill all
the paths of my nerves
which are yours.

From Franz Kafka’s Letters to Milena:

…love is to me that you are the knife which I turn within myself.

From Anne Carson’s “The Glass Essay”:

To see the love between Law and me
turn into two animals gnawing and craving through one anothertowards some other hunger was terrible.
[…]
What is love?
My questions were not original.
Nor did I answer them.

From Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being:

But was it love? The feeling of wanting to die beside him was clearly exaggerated: he had seen her only once before in his life! Was it simply the hysteria of a man who, aware deep down of his ineptitude for love felt the self-deluding need to simulate it? . . .

Looking out over the courtyard at the dirty walls, he realized he had no idea whether it was hysteria or love.

From Paul Beatty’s Slumberland:

Do you love me?

I’d never been in love. I’d always thought love was like reading Leaves of Grass in a crowded Westside park on a sunny Tuesday afternoon, having to suppress the urge with each giddy turn of the page to share your joy with the surrounding world. By ‘sharing’ I don’t mean quoting Whitman’s rhythm-machine poetics to a group of strangers waiting for auditions to be posted at the Screen Actors Guild, but wanting to stand up and scream, “I’m reading Walt Whitman, you joyless, shallow, walking-the-dog-by-carrying-the-dog, casting-courch-wrinkles-imprinted-in-your-ass, associate-producer’s-pubic-hairs-on-your-tongue, designer-perambulator-pushing-the-baby-you-and-your-Bel-Air-trophy-wife-had-by-inserting-someone-else’s-spermbank-jizz-in-a-surrogate-mother’s-uterus-because-you-and-your-sugar-daddy-were-too-busy-with-your-nonexistent-careers-to-fuck, no-day-job-having California Aryan assholes! I’m reading Whitman! . . . I’m reading Whitman, expanding my mind and melding with the universe! What have you done today? . . . Have you looked a the leaves of grass? No? I didn’t think so!” That’s what I thought love would be like. Reading Whitman and fighting the urge not to express your aesthetic superiority.

 

2016

January 4, 2016 — 2 Comments

hello