“Do you realize,” my friend Susannah said to me, “that we’re getting too old to be precocious?” This was at the start of the sixth grade. Susannah was, in fact, very precocious: politically minded, she had styled herself as an outspoken feminist, organizing an abortive boycott of a substitute gym teacher’s sexist softball practices. “I know,” she said sympathetically when she saw my face. “That’s how I felt, too—I almost cried. It’s a tragedy.”
This was dramatic, but Susannah wasn’t wrong. In some ways, the sands of time were running out, and our glory days were behind us. Soon, behaviors we’d once been rewarded for would be recognized as obnoxious, or precious, or odd. We’d have to hide them rather than flaunt them. What had been advanced was now arrested. Students at this point were honored for work and accomplishment rather than for quirks of early development. Read More »
In 1864, a nine-year-old slave girl was punished for daydreaming. Distracted by rumors that her brother and father would be sold, she failed to remove worms from the tobacco leaves she was picking. The overseer didn’t whip her. Instead, he pried her mouth open, stuffed a worm inside, and forced her to eat it.
This girl is not real. Her name is Addy Walker; she is an American Girl doll, one of eight historical dolls produced by the Pleasant Company who arrive with dresses, accessories, and a series of books about their lives. Of all the harrowing scenes I’ve encountered in slave narratives, I remember this scene from Meet Addy, her origin story, most vividly. How the worm—green, fat, and juicy—burst inside Addy’s mouth. At eight years old, I understood that slavery was cruel—I knew about hard labor and whippings—but the idea of a little girl being forced to eat a worm stunned me. I did not yet understand that violence is an art. There’s creativity to cruelty. What did I know of its boundaries and edges? Read More »
“My First Time” is a new video series in which we invite authors to discuss the trials of writing and publishing that first novel, that first play, that first book of poems. Consider it a chance to see how successful writers got their start, in their own words—it’s a portrait of the artist as a beginner and a look at the creative process, in all its joy, abjection, delusion, and euphoria.
Today, the playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins talks about his first play, Neighbors, which debuted at the Public Theater in 2010. He wrote it when he was twenty-three. “I’m gonna write this play about race,” his thinking went, “so that I don’t have to write more plays about race”:
But what the play taught me, and why I’m thankful for it, is that the room is really wide and long ... race is about psychology, it’s about acculturation, it’s about permissions that audiences give themselves, it’s about how people relate to space, how people feel like they belong or don’t belong ... it’s about, Who’s the butt of a joke, and what’s the joke?
Detail from a hand-colored engraving of Villa Diodati, by Edward Francis Finden, ca. 1833, after a drawing by William Purser.
Jonathan Franzen gave his first interview about his new novel Purity yesterday, and even the Associated Press showed up: “Those who left early missed a highlight of the event, a self-described ‘rising sophomore at the University of Connecticut’ telling Franzen that The Corrections was the basis for her project on the ‘depressed male protagonist in post-9/11 literature.’ ‘Say no more,’ answered a surprised, but amused Franzen.”
John Polidori was Lord Byron’s physician, and they traveled Europe together—no mean task, given the latter’s celebrity, which left the doctor feeling “like a star in the halo of the moon, invisible.” He was often the butt of Byron’s jokes that he began to write a cruel story about him—“The Vampyre,” which “establishes the vampire as we know it … reimagining the feral mud-caked creatures of southeastern European legend as the elegant and magnetic denizens of cosmopolitan assemblies and polite drawing rooms.” One problem: when the story was finally published, it was attributed not to Polidori but to Byron himself.
Virginia Woolf’s suicide—admittedly one of literary history’s more memorable, in its methods—has come to overshadow her life. Depictions of the author focus almost exclusively on her melancholic side, and Woolf Works, a new ballet, is no different: “What a miserable Woolf it always is! The focus in Woolf Works, The Hours, and Waves alike is on her tragic demise. This limits our view of her as a person—there’s none of the wit, charm and spirit that Woolf, by all accounts, had.”
Next time you see a commercial for Swiffer, remember the big picture—in the vastness of the cosmos, dust is not our enemy, but our friend. And we have the pictures to prove it. “Dust plays an essential part, not only in the history of life, but in the history of the universe as a whole. Although dust is a very small part of the mass of the universe, it controls the birth and death of stars and the heating and cooling of interstellar gas. Dust is prominent in the Hubble pictures, not only because dust clouds are beautiful, but because dust-clouds are big players in the cosmic drama.”
In her essay “Yellowstone Park,” collected in Memories of a Catholic Girlhood, Mary McCarthy describes a friend:
In school she had the name of being fast, which was based partly on her clothes and partly on the direct stare of her reddish-brown eyes, very wide open and rounded by the thick lenses of her glasses so that the whites had the look of boiled eggs. She made me think of a college widow.
Now, there’s a term you don’t hear anymore! The “college widow”! Once a byword for a predatory vamp, the college widow is an extinct American species. Read More »