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Posts Tagged ‘literature’

02 APRIL, 2014

From the Gold Rush to Silicon Valley: How Mark Twain Became the Steve Jobs of His Day

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The power of mischief, timing, and typography.

Mark Twain has no shortage of cultural credits — celebrated humorist, irreverent adviser to little girls, opinionated critic and cultural commentator, underappreciated poet, recipient of some outrageous requests from his fans. But perhaps his greatest feat was his own becoming — how he transformed Samuel Clemens into Mark Twain, “the Lincoln of Literature.”

In The Bohemians: Mark Twain and the San Francisco Writers Who Reinvented American Literature (public library), Ben Tarnoff chronicles that becoming alongside the rise of the singular “vanguard of democracy” that shaped the course of the Western written word, a course largely steered by Twain. Embedded in the altogether fascinating story, on a closer read, is a testament to history’s cyclical nature as a parallel emerges between San Francisco in the Gold Rush era and Silicon Valley today, and between the respective patron saints of those worlds — Mark Twain and Steve Jobs.

Born in 1835, Twain came of age “at the best possible time,” as the country was on the cusp of a remarkable cultural change, driven in large part by the discovery of gold in California in 1848 — the spark for the famous Gold Rush, which drew risk-takers, pioneers, and enterprising vagabonds from all over the world and elevated San Francisco as a gateway to the era’s El Dorado. Twain, born in the west and raised in Missouri, found in San Francisco what many entrepreneurs today find in Silicon Valley — like many other young men, he “hadn’t come to stay, but to get rich and get out.” The confluence of all these cultural and personal factors created a unique backdrop:

They erected tents and wooden hovels, makeshift structures that made easy kindling for the city’s frequent fires. They built gambling dens and saloons and brothels. They lived among the cultures of five continents, often condensed into the space of a single street: Cantonese stir-fry competing with German wurst, Chilean whores with Australian. On the far margin of the continent, they created a complex urban society virtually overnight.

By the time Twain got there, San Francisco still roared. It was densely urban, yet unmistakably western; isolated yet cosmopolitan; crude yet cultured. The city craved spectacle, whether on the gaslit stages of its many theaters or in the ornately costumed pageantry of its streets. Its wide-open atmosphere endeared it to the young and the odd, to anyone seeking refuge from the overcivilized East. It had an acute sense of its own history, and a paganish appetite for mythmaking and ritual.

Mark Twain in 1863, taken on his first visit to San Francisco. He was twenty-seven.

It’s unsurprising, then, that the city quickly sprouted a thriving literary scene — a “band of outsiders” known as the Bohemians — for writers are a culture’s foremost mythmakers. Tarnoff captures their spirit:

The Bohemians were nonconformists by choice or by circumstance, and they eased their isolation by forming intense friendships with one another. San Francisco was where their story began, but it would continue in Boston, New York, and London; in the palace and the poorhouse; in success and humiliation, fame and poverty.

Two concurrent and seemingly opposite cultural forces contributed to the rise of the Bohemians: On the one hand, the Civil War disrupted America’s moral and aesthetic tradition, creating “rifts in the culture wide enough for new voices to be heard”; on the other, the technological advances brought on by the war had also shrunk the country, bringing East and West closer together with the advent of the railroad and the telegraph. San Francisco was in a unique position to reap the fruits of both developments, and “its writers found a wider readership at a moment when the nation sorely needed new storytellers.

In joining the Bohemians, Twain forever changed the course of both his own life and American literature. Tarnoff writes:

No Bohemian made better art than Twain. San Francisco gave him his education as a writer, nurturing the literary powers he would later use to transform American literature. He would help steer the country through its newfangled nationhood, and become the supreme cultural icon of the postwar age. But first, he would spend his formative years on the Far Western fringe, in the company of other young Bohemians struggling to reinvent American writing.

Artwork by Debbie Millman. Click image for more.

Tarnoff’s enchanting portrait of young Twain is remarkable in several ways — it is exquisitely written, it paints a somewhat timeless picture of the eccentric entrepreneur archetype, but perhaps most of all it reveals details about the beloved author of which most of us are unaware, for seemingly trivial reasons related to the trajectory of recording technology: left with only black-and-white photographs as sensory documentation of his life, we are deaf-blind to details like his striking carrot-colored hair or the peculiar drawl and even more peculiar rhythm of his speech. Tarnoff brings young Twain to life:

What people remembered best about him, aside from his brambly red brows and rambling gait, was his strange way of speaking: a drawl that spun syllables slowly, like fallen branches on the surface of a stream. Printers transcribed it with hyphens and dashes, trying to render rhythms so complex they could’ve been scored as sheet music. He rasped and droned, lapsed into long silences, soared in the swaying tenor inherited from the slave songs of his childhood. He made people laugh while remaining dreadfully, imperially serious. He mixed the sincere and the satiric, the factual and the fictitious, in proportions too obscure for even his closest friends to decipher. He was prickly, irreverent, ambitious, vindictive — a personality as impenetrably vast as the American West, and as prone to seismic outbursts. He was Samuel Clemens before he became Mark Twain, and in the spring of 1863, he made a decision that brought him one step closer to the fame he craved.

Cover of 'Advice to Little Girls,' which Twain wrote at the age of thirty in 1865. Click image for more.

So on May 2, 1863, Samuel Clemens boarded a stagecoach headed to Mark Twain via a rocky two-hundred-mile journey to San Francisco. At age 27, he was already extraordinary before he had even arrived:

The young Twain … already had more interesting memories than most men twice his age. He had piloted steamboats on the Mississippi, roamed his native Missouri with a band of Confederate guerrillas, and as the Civil War began in earnest, taken the overland route to the Territory of Nevada — or Washoe, as westerners called it, after a local Indian tribe.

Originally, Twain hadn’t planned to stay long, but he found himself entranced by the city’s perpetual cycle of eating, drinking, sailing, and socializing. In a letter to his mother and sister from mid-May, he announced he was only going to stay a little while longer — ten days or so, and no more than two weeks. But San Francisco’s bountiful buffet of saloons, dance halls, and gambling dens sang to him a siren song he could not resist. By June, he was still there, living “to the hilt” (to borrow Anne Sexton’s term) and estimating that he knew at least a thousand of San Francisco’s 115,000 citizens — “knew” in the pre-Facebook sense, which makes the scale of his social life all the more impressive.

He eventually left in July, but the spell had been cast:

Over the course of the next year he would find many reasons to return: first to visit, then to live. He would chronicle its quirks, and hurt the feelings of not a few of its citizens. In exchange, San Francisco would mold him to literary maturity. It would inspire his evolution from a provincial scribbler into a great American writer, from Hannibal’s Samuel Clemens into America’s Mark Twain.

One particular detail about Twain made me consider a curious parallel between him and Steve Jobs beyond their similar cultural legacy of revolutionizing their respective fields: Twain, like Jobs, was a disobedient boy (his mother described him as “very wild and mischievous”) who hated school. But perhaps most importantly, he was a typesetter by trade and dropped out of school (as did Jobs) to become “a printer’s devil,” as type apprentices were called at the time. It was through typesetting that he entered into literature, and through typesetting that he found his irreverent voice. Tarnoff writes:

The shop became his schoolroom. He put other people’s lines into print and composed a few of his own. He learned to think of words as things, as slivers of ink-stained metal that, if strung in the right sequence, could make more mischief than any schoolboy prank. At fifteen he began typesetting for his brother Orion’s newspaper, the Western Union, and wrote the occasional sketch. When Orion left on a business trip and put his sibling in charge, the teenager lost no time in testing the incendiary potential of the medium. He ignited a feud with the editor of a rival newspaper, scorching the poor man so thoroughly that when Orion returned, he was forced to run an apology.

This sounds remarkably like the story of Steve Jobs, whose era-defining design vision was first tickled by a typography class that he serendipitous wandered into, out of academic mischief and boredom with his prescribed course. Type led Jobs to design innovation and Twain to literary innovation. Both men also came of age at a time of incredible technological progress — for Jobs, the golden age of modern computing, and for Twain, the momentum of the Industrial Revolution. As a young man, Twain saw steamboats and trains and telegraphs transform the diffusion of the printed word across the country. He witnessed America’s booming love affair with newspapers — a century before he was born, the country had 37 newspapers. By the time he entered typesetting, there were more than a thousand.

Tarnoff contextualizes the significance of this shift, and the particular fertility of Twain’s locale of choice:

The newspaper revolution created America’s first popular culture. Twain belonged wholly to this revolution, and the world he discovered in the Far West was its most fertile staging ground… By 1870, California had one of the highest literacy rates in the nation: only 7.3 percent of its residents over the age of ten couldn’t write, compared with 20 percent nationwide. The region’s wealth financed a range of publications and gave people the leisure to read them. As Twain observed, there was no surer sign of “flush times” in a Far Western boomtown than the founding of a “literary paper.” Poetry and fiction mattered to miners and farmers, merchants and bankers. For them the printed word wasn’t a luxury — it was a lifeline. It fostered a sense of place, a feeling of community, in a frontier far from home.

The Bohemians is fantastic read in its entirety. Complement it with Twain on religion and our human egotism, morality vs. intelligence, and his mischievous advice to little girls.

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26 MARCH, 2014

Annie Dillard on the Art of the Essay and Narrative Nonfiction vs. Poetry and Short Stories

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“Writers serve as the memory of a people. They chew over our public past.”

“Only a person who is congenitally self-centered has the effrontery and the stamina to write essays,” E.B. White remarked in his reflection on the art of the essay. And yet there must be a reason why the essay is what we turn to when we set out to assess human potential, as in college applications, and discuss matters of cultural charge, as in op-eds. For Annie Dillardmodern mystic, sage of writing, champion of the creative spirit — the essay is not only an immensely valuable genre of literature, but also a pinnacle of thought and a hallmark of the writer’s aspiration for significance. In the introduction to the altogether excellent anthology The Best American Essays 1988 (public library), which she edited, Dillard explores the misunderstood merits of the essay, a form she considers to be the short form of nonfiction, much as the short story is the short form of fiction. She places particular focus on the narrative essay — a genre that “demonstrates the modern writer’s self-conscious interest in writing” — especially narrative essays that “mix plain facts and symbolic facts, or that transform plain facts into symbolic facts.”

A great many narrative essays appear in the guise of short stories… My guess is that the writers (quite reasonably) want to be understood as artists, and they aren’t sure that the essay form invites the sort of critical analysis the works deserve.

Her aspiration in editing the volume, Dillard notes, was to coax essay writers “out of the closet.”

Comparing the extinction of the essay with the shrinking of other literary forms — including a particularly ungenerous but, perhaps, tragically accurate account of poetry’s role in the literary ecosystem — Dillard presages the rise of the narrative essay:

Poetry seems to have priced itself out of a job; sadly, it often handles few materials of significance and addresses a tiny audience. Literary fiction is scarcely published; it’s getting to be like conceptual art — all the unknown writer can do is tell people about his work, and all they can say is, “good idea.” The short story is to some extent going the way of poetry, willfully limiting its subject matter to such narrow surfaces that it cannot address the things that most engage our hearts and minds. So the narrative essay may become the genre of choice for writers devoted to significant literature.

She goes on to explore just what makes the narrative essay such a winsome genre over short fiction and poetry:

In some ways the essay can deal in both events and ideas better than the short story can, because the essayist — unlike the poet — may introduce the plain, unadorned thought without the contrived entrances of long-winded characters who mouth discourses… The essayist may reason; he may treat of historical, cultural, or natural events, as well as personal events, for their interest and meaning alone, without resort to fabricated dramatic occasions. So the essay’s materials are larger than the story’s.

The essay may deal in metaphor better than the poem can, in some ways, because prose may expand what the lyric poem must compress. Instead of confining a metaphor to half a line, the essayist can devote to it a narrative, descriptive, or reflective couple of pages, and bring forth vividly its meanings… The range of rhythms in prose is larger and grander than that of poetry. And it can handle discursive idea, and plain fact, as well as character and story.

The essay can do everything a poem can do, and everything a short story can do — everything but fake it. The elements in any nonfiction should be true not only artistically — the connections must hold at base and must be veracious, for that is the convention and the covenant between the nonfiction writer and his reader. Veracity isn’t much of a drawback to the writer; there’s a lot of truth out there to work with. And veracity isn’t much of a drawback to the reader. The real world arguably exerts a greater fascination on people than any fictional one; many people, at least, spend their whole lives there, apparently by choice. The essayist does what we do with our lives; the essayist thinks about actual things. He can make sense of them analytically or artistically. In either case he renders the real world coherent and meaningful, even if only bits of it, and even if that coherence and meaning reside only inside small texts.

Annie Dillard, 1988. Portrait by Richard Howard.

Dillard argues that American literature “derives from the essay and hinges on the essay,” for it stems from Emerson, who was an essayist. She lists among the notable godfathers of the genre Thoreau, Twain, and Poe, then turns to Melville and what his underappreciated essays reveal about the general cultural conceits toward the genre:

There is no reason why anyone should read, touch, or publish this brilliant stuff (“The Encantadas” [Melville's essay about his ephemeral experience of the Galapagos Islands]) as fiction — except that the world is curiously blind to the essay, and to the essay’s imaginative and narrative possibility, as if it didn’t exist, or as if a work by its very excellence should have mysteriously tiptoed out of its proper (but dull-sounding) genre and crept into a more fashionable (but incorrect) one.

Noting that understanding history is a recurrent theme in her selection of essays, as well as in literary nonfiction in general, Dillard captures the cultural role of the writer beautifully:

Writers serve as the memory of a people. They chew over our public past.

And yet that is an act that requires mastering the art of uncertainty, of “the unknowingness that is the nub of any intimacy”:

We try to see in the dark; we toss up our questions and they catch in the trees.

(It is rather ironic, given Dillard’s dismissal of poetry as a lesser form, that it was John Keats — a poet — who best articulated this notion in his famous concept of “negative capability.”)

Dillard returns to the cultural journey of the essay:

The essay is, and has been, all over the map. There’s nothing you cannot do with it; no subject matter is forbidden, no structure is proscribed. You get to make up your own structure every time, a structure that arises from the materials and best contains them. The material is the world itself, which, so far, keeps on keeping on. The thinking mind will analyze, and the creative imagination will link instances, and time itself will churn out scenes — scenes unnoticed and lost, or scenes remembered, written, and saved.

Complement The Best American Essays 1988 with this meditation on what makes a great essay by Robert Atwan, editor of the Best American Essays series, from the 2012 edition of the anthology, then revisit E.B. White on egoism and the art of the essay and Annie Dillard’s collected wisdom on writing.

HT Alexander Chee

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25 MARCH, 2014

Flannery O’Connor on Why the Grotesque Appeals to Us, Plus a Rare Recording of Her Reading “A Good Man Is Hard to Find”

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“There is something in us, as storytellers and as listeners to stories, that demands the redemptive act, that demands that what falls at least be offered the chance to be restored.”

Flannery O’Connor (March 25, 1925–August 3, 1964) is among the titans of twentieth-century literature (in addition to being a lesser-known satirical cartoonist). In 1960, O’Connor penned an essay titled “Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction,” eventually included in the altogether fantastic posthumous collection of her unpublished lectures, essays, and critical articles, Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose (public library). While the essay focuses on Southern literature, it touches on a number of bigger questions in all literature, most crucially how the qualifiers and variables attached to a writer — in this case, religion and regional geography — affect the writerliness of the writer. (At the heart of the inquiry is the same concern Margaret Atwood had decades later in examining how and whether being a “woman writer” impacts being a writer.)

In this rare recording, taped at the Dorothy Lamar Blount Lecture Series at Wesleyan College the year the essay was published, O’Connor reads a portion of an early draft of the piece. Highlights from the full final version, including the passage O’Connor reads, below.

I think that if there is any value in hearing writers talk, it will be in hearing what they can witness to and not what they can theorize about. My own approach to literary problems is very like the one Dr. Johnson’s blind housekeeper used when she poured tea — she put her finger inside the cup.

These are not times when writers in this country can very well speak for one another. . . . Today each writer speaks for himself, even though he may not be sure that his work is important enough to justify his doing so.

[…]

When we look at a good deal of serious modern fiction, and particularly Southern fiction, we find this quality about it that is generally described, in a pejorative sense, as grotesque. Of course, I have found that anything that comes out of the South is going to be called grotesque by the Northern reader, unless it is grotesque, in which case it is going to be called realistic. But for this occasion, we may leave such misapplications aside and consider the kind of fiction that may be called grotesque with good reason, because of a directed intention that way on the part of the author.

In these grotesque works, we find that the writer has made alive some experience which we are not accustomed to observe every day, or which the ordinary man may never experience in his ordinary life. We find that connections which we would expect in the customary kind of realism have been ignored, that there are strange skips and gaps which anyone trying to describe manners and customs would certainly not have left. Yet the characters have an inner coherence, if not always a coherence to their social framework. Their fictional qualities lean away from typical social patterns, toward mystery and the unexpected. It is this kind of realism that I want to consider.

All novelists are fundamentally seekers and describers of the real, but the realism of each novelist will depend on his view of the ultimate reaches of reality.

[…]

Whenever I’m asked why Southern writers particularly have a penchant for writing about freaks, I say it is because we are still able to recognize one. To be able to recognize a freak, you have to have some conception of the whole man, and in the South the general conception of man is still, in the main, theological. That is a large statement, and it is dangerous to make it, for almost anything you say about Southern belief can be denied in the next breath with equal propriety. But approaching the subject from the standpoint of the writer, I think it is safe to say that while the South is hardly Christ-centered, it is most certainly Christ-haunted. The Southerner, who isn’t convinced of it, is very much afraid that he may have been formed in the image and likeness of God. Ghosts can be very fierce and instructive. They cast strange shadows, particularly in our literature. In any case, it is when the freak can be sensed as a figure for our essential displacement that he attains some depth in literature.

(More than half a century later, Neil Gaiman explored the grip of ghosts in a beautiful related meditation.)

O’Connor goes on to consider another explanation for the singular sensibility of the Southern writer:

There is another reason in the Southern situation that makes for a tendency toward the grotesque and this is the prevalence of good Southern writers. I think the writer is initially set going by literature more than by life. When there are many writers all employing the same idiom, all looking out on more or less the same social scene, the individual writer will have to be more than ever careful that he isn’t just doing badly what has already been done to completion. The presence alone of Faulkner in our midst makes a great difference in what the writer can and cannot permit himself to do. Nobody wants his mule and wagon stalled on the same track the Dixie Limited is roaring down.

The Southern writer is forced from all sides to make his gaze extend beyond the surface, beyond mere problems, until it touches that realm which is the concern of prophets and poets. . . .

For the kind of writer I have been describing, a literature which mirrors society would be no fit guide for it, and one which did manage, by sheer art, to do both these things would have to have recourse to more violent means than middlebrow subject matter and mere technical expertness.

She reflects on what amplifies the appeal of the grotesque in fiction:

The novelist must be characterized not by his function but by his vision, and we must remember that his vision has to be transmitted and that the limitations and blind spots of his audience will very definitely affect the way he is able to show what he sees.

O’Connor offers a broader meditation on why we read:

There is something in us, as storytellers and as listeners to stories, that demands the redemptive act, that demands that what falls at least be offered the chance to be restored. The reader of today looks for this motion, and rightly so, but what he has forgotten is the cost of it. His sense of evil is diluted or lacking altogether, and so he has forgotten the price of restoration. When he reads a novel, he wants either his senses tormented or his spirits raised. He wants to be transported, instantly, either to mock damnation or a mock innocence.

She follows this with a mirror-image question of why writers write and, echoing Eudora Welty on the poetic of place, ties this back to the regional roots of literature:

I am often told that the model of balance for the novelist should be Dante, who divided his territory up pretty evenly between hell, purgatory, and paradise. There can be no objection to this, but also there can be no reason to assume that the result of doing it in these times will give us the balanced picture that it gave in Dante’s. Dante lived in the thirteenth century, when that balance was achieved in the faith of his age. We live now in an age which doubts both fact and value, which is swept this way and that by momentary convictions. Instead of reflecting a balance from the world around him, the novelist now has to achieve one from a felt balance inside himself.

[…]

The problem for such a novelist will be to know how far he can distort without destroying, and in order not to destroy, he will have to descend far enough into himself to reach those underground springs that give life to big work. This descent into himself will, at the same time, be a descent into his region.

And just for good measure, here is O’Connor reading the title story of her most celebrated collection, A Good Man Is Hard to Find and Other Stories, published in 1955. The recording, found on the Criterion Collection disc Wise Blood, was long believed to be the only recording of O’Connor reading, though the one above clearly disproves the case.

Mystery and Manners is a terrific tome in its entirety. Complement it with young O’Connor’s little-known satirical cartoons.

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