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Posts Tagged ‘James Baldwin’

An Indulgence of Authors’ Self-Portraits

March 24, 2016 | by

Philip Roth

“An Indulgence of Authors’ Self-Portraits” appeared in our Fall 1976 issue, the same year Burt Britton’s book Self-Portraits—Book People Picture Themselves was published. Britton’s book displays his collection of self-doodles by famous authors, artist, athletes, actors, and musicians, much of which was sold at auction in 2009. “So what does Mr. Britton look like?” asked the New York Times in 2009. “He refused to be photographed.” —Jeffery Gleaves

One evening fifteen years ago Burt Britton (now head of the Review department at the Strand Bookstore) and Norman Mailer were sitting together in the Village Vanguard where Britton then worked. On impulse, Britton asked Mailer for a self-portrait. Mailer complied—the first of a collection which began to fill the pages of a blank book in the Strand. These were done by friends—primarily writers—who entered their drawings and salutations when they visited the store. No one has refused him a self-portrait. When he remarked on James Jones’ generosity, Jones explained, “Burt, for Christ’s sake, I wouldn’t be left out of that book!”

As his collection grew, Britton was approached by a number of publishers, but always refused publication on the grounds that the self-portraits were the property of his private mania. But recently Anais Nin and others have persuaded him to let others in on how writers view themselves. Random House will publish the entire collection this fall under the title, Self-Portraits—Book People Picture Themselves. Many of the portraits reproduced here are by writers who have been published and/or interviewed in this magazine.  Read More »

Another Another Country

March 23, 2016 | by

It goes without saying that James Baldwin was a legendary speaker—a preacher turned orator turned public intellectual who knew the power of words. But hearing him never ceases to shock. Very little can be added to this mesmerizing recording of Baldwin reading from his 1962 novel, Another Country. Answering a prompt for The New York Times Book Review about why his book had become so popular, Baldwin wrote, Read More »

NPR Mug Optional, and Other News

February 26, 2016 | by

Lit mag to the stars.

  • That image above comes from the trailer for Maggie’s Plan, which features Ethan Hawke reading our Winter 2014 issue (if I had to guess, he’s somewhere deep in the Michael Haneke interview) as Greta Gerwig looks on with envy. Is the rest of the film this scintillating? One can only hope.
  • Since it closed in 1957, Black Mountain College has achieved a level of renown verging on mythic—it’s now the subject of an exhibition in Boston, the fourth show devoted to it in recent years. Barry Schwabsky asks: “Why the recurring preoccupation with a short-lived, unaccredited school at the back of beyond, which never had enough students to pay its way? It could be the school’s believe-it-or-not story and how, the more you learn about it, the more unlikely it seems … The idealism, the creative élan, the infectious sense of possibility that the exhibitions highlight—these were all part of Black Mountain, and the school’s implicit promise was fulfilled surprisingly often. But there were illusions, too … the community’s internal politics turned out to be nearly impossible to negotiate with grace. An educational philosophy based on ‘the whole person’ gave no indication of how to square the conflicting goals of community and individuality.”
  • In 1960, James Baldwin gave a speech called “Notes for a Hypothetical Novel.” “I want to follow a group of lives,” he said, “almost from the time they open their eyes on the world until some point of resolution, say, marriage, or childbirth, or death.” Edwidge Danticat unpacks those remarks: “In other talks and essays, he laid out some ideas about what made an unsuccessful novel, citing problems like too neat a frame, sentimentality, and facile lessons and solutions. The novel he was referring to in the speech, though, he claimed, was both ‘unwritten and probably unwritable.’ Neither was it meant to be a ‘long, warm, toasty’ novel. ‘This hypothetical book is aiming at something more implacable than that … The social realities with which these people, the people I remember, whether they knew it or not, were really contending can’t be left out of the novel without falsifying their experience.’ ”
  • Before the black-and-white photograph came to prominence, there was the lowly cyanotype, a photographic process known for its blue tint and its speedy, easy production. A new exhibition gives the form its due, as the curator Nancy Burns says: “The fact that they were blue was also just too weird for people—that the idea of what a photograph was supposed to look like was black and white … but blue was just too bizarre … Last but not least, is that they were used for making blueprints—that you could make cyanotypes as not just a photograph, but you can use it to transfer a drawing or text. And because it has an association with something so pedestrian and being used as a photocopier, it didn’t quite make it into the earliest histories of photography because people weren’t entirely convinced that they were photographs.”
  • Creative people like to say they hate small talk, with its eye-rolling tendencies toward banality and formality. But no matter what Heidegger and other opponents of “idle talk” suggest, their hatred for it is probably to blame on the fact that they’re bad at it: “We are living in a low moment for the art of minimal social interactions … Small talk has always been a tool to avoid the minefield of unintended boorishness … Even those who found small talk uninspiring once recognized its utility, like the British statesman Lord Chesterfield, who’s responsible for the first-known use of the phrase … It requires playing within the lines. Using sports, weather, family, and other unremarkable raw material, the skilled conversationalist spins it into gold—or at least cotton candy.”

Addy Walker, American Girl

December 23, 2015 | by

We’re away until January 4, but we’re re-posting some of our favorite pieces from 2015. Please enjoy, and have a happy New Year!

Addymeet2

From the cover of Meet Addy.

The role of black dolls in American culture.

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 >>

Staff Picks: Stray Dogs, Stereographs, Pepsi Sex Floats

November 13, 2015 | by

Detail from one of Jim Shaw’s “Dream Objects,” on display now at the New Museum.

Sleep doesn’t always come easy for me, so I was drawn to Linda Pastan’s new collection of poems just from its title: Insomnia. Pastan muses on the daydreams the sleepless have at night, the small histories that emerge as each day wanes. Her narrators sit up wishing their gnarled skin was as beautiful as an apple tree’s, or remembering the “fascinated nightmares” the woodcut novels of Lynd Ward inspired. They think about Lucas Cranach the Elder’s Adam and Eve and the poet Roland Flint and the way asteroids resemble giant brains plucked from their skulls. Though the title suggests otherwise, Pastan writes oneirically, knitting gentle verse together with playful, if often somber, scenes. In “Counting Sheep,” Pastan writes of how restless the sheep are, waiting to be added up: “I notice a ram / pushing up against a soft and curly female … It’s difficult / to keep so many sheep / in line for counting ... ” In “Insomnia: 3 AM,” “Sleep has stepped out / for a smoke / and may not be back”—I just love that. —Caitlin Youngquist

Jim Shaw’s “The End Is Here” is up through January 10 at the New Museum: three floors chockablock with thrift-store paintings, extreme Christian ephemera, and Shaw’s own distinctly outré drawings, paintings, and collages. J. Hoberman has written that “although [Shaw’s] obsessive faux naïve work dares you to find it creepy, it is more often strangely cheerful, as well as enigmatic.” This holds true no matter how outrageous his images are: two aliens fucking on a UFO flight deck, Santa getting his dick bitten off. Shaw’s is a world where even an exsanguinated penis is nothing more than a lark; Freudians need not apply. Then there’s the artist’s collected stuff—from junk piles and yard sales, Shaw has compiled some significant American detritus, and his arrangements make it all more cohesive than you’d expect. Stick around long enough and even the titles for his dream drawings start to make sense: “I was drawing a Pepsi sex float … ” “In Reno there was a Titanic mockup where a girl … ” “I think I was half awake when I thought of this upright piano modeled after the cave monster from It Conquered the World … ” —Dan Piepenbring Read More »

Is There a Doctor in the House? And Other News

October 30, 2015 | by

An ad for a show at the Grand Guignol.

  • In search of some cosmic horror, something to give you seasonally appropriate nightmares, something outside the realm of the usual Lovecraft stuff? Try William Hope Hodgson, who in the early twentieth century “envisioned the end of the Earth in the distant future: 1908’s The House on the Borderland features it in hallucinatory form, while 1912’s The Night Land is set at a point where the sun’s light has dimmed.” Or try Thomas Ligotti, in whose stories “the truths about the world that people discover are enough to tear them apart—sometimes literally. His protagonists often find themselves facing forces far beyond their ability to grapple with or comprehend. The therapist narrating ‘Dream of a Manikin’ is, ultimately, trapped in a series of collapsing realities; what begins as a simple, Twilight Zone-esque twist to the narrative gives way to a series of revelations beside which a simple ‘everything you know is a lie’ would be a comfort.”
  • Since the Tin Pan Alley era, if not earlier, pop music has been likened to an assembly line: even today people like to joke about “the hit factory,” imagining the sleek, automated, international manufacturing process that generates our Top 40. But isn’t the metaphor a bit stale, by now? “A more accurate and illuminating way to understand today’s pop might be to think of it as post-­industrial, a phenomenon not of the machine era but of the information age. Music is made today by mining the vast digital repository of recordings of the past, or by emulating or referencing them through synthesis, and then manipulating them and mashing them up—with the human fallibility and genius that have always laced popular music and probably always will. Indeed, it is accessing and processing—the methods that digitalization facilitates—rather than gearing and stamping for uniformity and mass production that distinguish twenty-first-century pop. Like machine-age plants everywhere, the song factories have closed, and the work of the day is being done electronically.”
  • And just as we’re fond of the “hit factory” metaphor, who doesn’t enjoy a casual Grand Guignol reference from time to time? And yet who among us knows a thing about the actual Grand Guignol? “The Grand Guignol was originally founded in 1895 by French playwright Oscar Méténier. He purchased an old chapel located at the end of a tight alley, leaving the gothic, religious decorations intact. Wooden angels hung from the ceiling, and towered over the orchestra … In 1897, the theater was taken over by Max Maurey, who leaned into the Grand Guignol as a space for straight-up horror. Under Maurey’s leadership, the theater ran a variety of plays, ranging from comedies to dramas … He was said to judge the success of a given play by the number of audience members who passed out. As a publicity stunt, he also hired a house doctor to administer to those who were adversely affected by the horrors on display … Under Maurey’s leadership, the plays at the Grand Guignol began focusing on tales of insanity, hallucination, and, above all, terror … involving figures like a child-killing nanny, a mad doctor who performs a vengeful lobotomy, and jealous women who stick a pair scissors in the eyes of a more beautiful woman.”
  • James Baldwin’s once splendorous home in the Cote d’Azur is in shambles now, as Thomas Chatterton Williams discovered when he broke in: He found “an extremely wide and shallow expanse of overgrown grass, orange trees, cypresses, wild lavender, and palms that gives sweeping views of the walled town above, the sun-drenched valley below, and, in the distance, the Mediterranean’s rippling sheen. The stone barrier wall had been broken a truck’s width and re-sealed with a chain-link fence that begged to be circumvented. I crouched and pulled out the cinderblock that stabilized it … I could not stop myself from attaching a deep significance to that ruined house in the foothills of the Alps, overlooking a distant sea. The thought that one of the most gifted and munificently alive writers of the twentieth century, the quintessential black American in France, would soon be rid of his only geographical footprint … struck me as unbearably sad.”
  • Ai Weiwei ordered Legos in bulk. The corporation refused to fulfill his order, claiming that they “cannot approve the use of Legos for political works.” This made Ai Weiwei upset, as one might imagine. He decided to procure Legos the old-fashioned way: through the sunroofs of BMWs. “Ai Weiwei would like to rent, borrow or buy second-hand a BMW 5S Series sedan, of which the color can vary, as a Lego container,” he wrote on his Instagram. “The vehicle must have clear windows and a sunroof that can be fixed open with a five cm opening so that people can insert Legos … The car should be parked and locked in a central location of the city that can be easily accessed by the public. The vehicle should remain in the parking space for one month or a longer period of time, preferably in a location related to arts or culture, indoor or outdoor.” Some laud his willfully bizarre effort to fight censorship. Others think it’s what Jed Perl has called “political kitsch”: “one wonders where the political dissent ends and the artsy attitudinizing begins.”