August 10, 2016 | by Max Nelson
The “unlove and unfreedom” in Johnnie B. Smith’s work songs.
Max Nelson is writing a series on prison literature.
During the thirteen years he spent jailed for murder on a Texas prison farm, Johnnie B. Smith sang work songs. In 1964, the ethnomusicologist Bruce Jackson met Smith during a trip through the state prison system to document the dwindling number of older, black prisoners who still knew the sorts of songs Smith led. He taped Smith’s renditions of a handful of standards: “Drop ’Em Down Together,” “Sure Make a Man Feel Bad,” “Poor Boy.” But Smith, Jackson soon learned, also sang songs of his own writing, stranger and more private than the ones he’d heard passed down.
These songs share a structure and melody, but they allow for a nearly limitless range of embellishments and improvisations. Their stanzas, for the most part, have four lines each—a single couplet sung in two variations. Their melody, which Smith adjusts verse by verse and song by song, is more difficult to describe. Its tempo accelerates and slows downs unexpectedly; its volume swells and falls; it changes gears rattlingly; it’s marked by disquieting pockets of silence. The shortest of these songs is over six minutes long; the longest, more than twenty-three.
At the time Jackson conducted his fieldwork, Ramsey—where Smith was held—was one of fourteen prisons in the Texas Correctional System. It comprised a sprawling farm property produced by combining five former plantations. Inmates felled trees, picked cotton, and worked the fields; the resulting products were either used within the prison or sold to cover the cost of housing the prisoners themselves. (As late as the early 1960s, the work teams were entirely segregated.) Ramsey’s inmates were, in effect, funding their own imprisonment, and for many decades black prisoners did so under conditions not much different from those of chattel slavery. The “riders” and “captains” Smith addresses across his songs were horse-mounted bosses whose brutality toward the work crews was widely known and feared. Read More »
July 21, 2016 | by Max Nelson
On September 14, 1838, the precociously gifted twenty-three-year-old poet Jones Very was removed under mysterious circumstances from his post as a Greek tutor at Harvard. The previous day, he had visited the Unitarian minister Henry Ware Jr., a prominent opponent of the radical new school of religious thought associated with Very’s friend Ralph Waldo Emerson and his Concord-based intellectual circle. Unprompted, Very started reciting a heated, controversial commentary on the twenty-fourth chapter of Matthew. “To Mr. Ware’s objections,” his fellow divinity student George Moore would later relate,
he said he was willing to yield, but that the spirit would not let him—that this revelation had been made to him, and that what he said was eternal truth—that he had fully given up his own will, and now only did the will of the Father—that it was the father who was speaking thro’ him. He thinks himself divinely inspired, and says that Christ’s second coming is in him.
June 29, 2016 | by Max Nelson
The memoirs of an imprisoned suffragette.
Max Nelson is writing a series on prison literature. Read the previous entry, on John Cleland’s very erotic prison novel, here.
In 1908, when she was thirty-seven, Lady Constance Lytton took a vacation by the sea in Littlehampton. She’d accepted a friend’s offer to spend the summer at the Esperance Club, a charity meant to teach working-class women traditional English dances and folk songs. During a walk through town one day, she found a crowd gathered around “a sheep which had escaped as it was being taken to the slaughterhouse.” Watching the animal stagger around to the crowd’s amusement, she wrote,
A vision suddenly rose in my mind of what it should have been on its native mountain-side with all its forces rightly developed, vigorous and independent. There was a hideous contrast between that vision and the thing in the crowd.
The vision of the sheep comes at the start of her 1914 autobiography, Prisons and Prisoners, in a chapter titled “My Conversion.” “It seemed to reveal for me for the first time,” Lytton continued, “the position of women throughout the world.” Read More »
June 28, 2016 | by Iris Smyles
Hosting a national blurb contest.
Walt Whitman, the “American bard,” who was named after a shopping mall in Huntington, New York, where I grew up, is often credited with having invented the book blurb. On the spine of his debut, Leaves of Grass, he had printed in gold leaf a line teased from a letter he’d gotten from Ralph Waldo Emerson: “I greet you at the beginning of a great career.” Emerson was right: Whitman continues to rank among America’s finest careerists.
Gertrude Stein, unable to break through to the literary mainstream, wrote herself a novel-length blurb entitled The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. Writing as Alice, her live-in companion, she described at length Gertrude’s prodigious, if misunderstood, genius. This 252-page press kit was an immediate best seller, prompting Stein to embark on a national tour, which she described in Everybody’s Autobiography, a sequel explaining why you should hire her for speaking engagements.
Ernest Hemingway’s first short-story collection, In Our Time, was published with no fewer than six blurbs—on the cover. I can’t remember if he won the Nobel before or after he finished taping the beer commercials. With Toni Morrison, it was definitely before: Pulitzer, Nobel, Chipotle wrapper, in that order.
Will my novels secure my literary legacy the way Morrison’s and Hemingway’s did theirs? Will I ever see my name engraved on a line of high-quality toilets, I sometimes wonder, after hours of furious literary labor? Will I be immortal, like Whitman, transcending with my “song” the conventional boundaries of self? Will Kohler, the premier name in luxury flushing, ever ask me to be their spokeswoman? Read More »
June 10, 2016 | by Miranda Popkey
How Helen DeWitt’s The Last Samurai cultivates ambition in its readers.
In the late nineties, Helen DeWitt, a then-unpublished writer with a Ph.D. in classics from Oxford, got an offer on her first novel, The Seventh Samurai. It had been seventeen months since her agent had indicated she would be able to get an advance based on the first six chapters of the manuscript—which, in the absence of a contract, DeWitt had diligently been attempting to finish. After she received the offer, she wrote to her agent; she felt she was likely to commit suicide if she had to continue working with her. Looking over her editor's comments, she scarcely felt more hopeful. When a contract arrived, she decided not to sign it.
Some time later, a friend showed the manuscript to Jonathan Burnham, then at Talk Miramax Books; he immediately offered her $70,000. At the Frankfurt Book Fair, the novel caused what can fairly be called a sensation; but the enthusiasm of foreign houses did not make English-language publication any easier. DeWitt spent months battling her copy editor, who had ignored DeWitt’s edits and imposed hundreds of standardizing changes of her own. It was, DeWitt told the Observer in 2011, as if they were trying to “kill the mind that wrote the book.”
In 2000, DeWitt’s novel was released as The Last Samurai. (DeWitt was forced to change the title, only to see its Google results buried, three years later, beneath the Tom Cruise movie of the same name). In The New Yorker, A. S. Byatt hailed it as “a triumph—a genuinely new story, a genuinely new form.” Read More »
May 5, 2016 | by Max Nelson
John Cleland wrote his (very) erotic novel, Fanny Hill, in prison. What did he mean by it?
Max Nelson is writing a series on prison literature. Read the previous entry, on Merle Haggard and the long tradition of the outlaw poet, here.
John Cleland’s sentences often resemble the sexual encounters he imagined in his best-known book—a two-volume novel called Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, or Fanny Hill, published when he was in debtor’s prison between 1748 and 1749, reissued in a censored edition the following year, and presented in both cases as an autobiographical letter by a former courtesan named Fanny Hill. A typical Cleland sentence goes on past any moderate end point, “wedging [itself] up to the utmost extremity.” It makes unexpected, spasmodic, sometimes baffling detours, “exalted by the charm of their novelty and surprise.” It drifts so far into the ridiculous that sometimes it seems “that on earth”—as Cleland’s heroine comments in one passage about the “women of quality” she and her colleagues once wanted to resemble—“there cannot subsist anything more silly, more flat, more insipid and worthless.” But then it keeps going, escalating until it seems to have been “driven forcibly out of the power of using any art.” Read More »