This Week in Literary History: Jan. 25-31
Recognizing the birthdays of Gloria Naylor, "The Raven" and more
Welcome to a new week and a new edition of This Week in Literary History. Stories and a list of notable literary births and events for Jan. 25-31 are below. Enjoy!
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The Awakenings and Discoveries of National Book Award winner Gloria Naylor
By Emily Quiles
“The way a writer learns to use their voice, to use the language, is the same way that a child will learn,” Gloria Naylor told attendees at a lecture hall in Cornell University in 1988. “And that’s first by hearing it.” Born in New York City but conceived in Robinsonville, Miss., Naylor marks her conception as the beginning developments of her voice.
“Yes, of course, there was my dad, I’m a feminist, but I still acknowledge that there was the male and his conception,” Naylor said, laughing. “But it was also primarily through my mother’s genes that I inherited, and I like to think of myself inheriting my passionate love of books.”
Naylor’s mother grew up as a member of a large sharecropping family and “could not entertain her own love of books,” Naylor explained. “Growing up in Mississippi in the 1930s, they were one, not allowed to use the public libraries and two, could not afford to buy books.”
Persistent, Naylor’s mother worked every Saturday to earn an extra two dollars each month and spent the money on book clubs to attain reading materials. “She also attained a fierce desire to have her children born in a place where they could at least be able to read,” Naylor said.
With her mother eight months pregnant and committed to her promise, Naylor’s parents left Mississippi for New York. “That’s why I’m technically a native New Yorker, but my roots remain there,” Naylor said. “Above all, the evolution of my voice remains there.”
Before Naylor could write, her adamant mother would take her children to the public library in Harlem and say, “You see all of these books. Once you’re able to write your name, all of these books will be yours for two weeks.”
“Somehow that hit home,” Naylor recalled. “The idea of being able to enter once I could acquire that language, all of these various worlds, was absolutely magical.”
So one Sunday, when Naylor could write her name, “when I could begin to understand those codes in that written language,” she visited the public library to check out a book. “I listened voraciously. I read voraciously.”
Growing up, Naylor fell asleep with books on her chest. “I was that kind of child,” she said. Extremely shy, Naylor instead rested comfortably inside her mind. “As a matter of fact, I did not talk at all.”
Naylor’s concerned mother gave her a diary at 12 years old and said, “Gloria, there are probably things in your home that trouble you, and there are probably things at school that trouble you. Since you can’t seem to talk about them, why don’t you write about them in here?”
That cheap white plastic diary allowed Naylor to turn her internal non-verbal chaos into external words. “To this day, I do not differentiate between that little cheat diary and the last novel that I completed,” Naylor said. “All of it, to me, is a way of trying to make sense out of the senseless. It’s a way of letting my voice be heard.”
Entangled with the literary world, Naylor asked her teachers for more reading materials, so they directed her to English classics. “I absorbed all of that,” recalled Naylor. “Thinking, indeed, yes, these were the voices to hear, because my school curriculum had told me.”
Over time Naylor internalized the lack of representation she saw in these books. “I thought that Black people did not write books, and especially Black women,” Naylor remembered. “So, therefore, somehow, I must have been a freak.”
It wasn’t until Naylor’s sophomore year at Brooklyn College that she heard the voice in her diary reflected in print in her creative writing course. “I was 27 years old to discover, indeed, that not only had Black people been writing about Black people, Black women, Black men, Black children even had been writing in this country for two centuries, but they had been writing exquisitely well.”
Naylor felt the world open up to her and decided to get a master’s in African-American Studies. “I wanted, perhaps to try to master the critical tongue, which I never did, somehow, but the desire had been implanted there,” Naylor explained.
Naylor published eight pieces of fiction, including the novels The Women of Brewster Place and Linden Hills. The former, Naylor’s first book, won a National Book Award in 1983.
Born on Jan. 25, 1950, in New York, N.Y.
Died on Sep. 28, 2016, in Christiansted, U.S. Virgin Islands
Jonathan Carroll Urges Writers to Embrace “Mixed Salad” Writing
By Andrew Sanger
Throughout his writing career, Jonathan Carroll has inspired and baffled readers with his unique brand of genre-defying fiction. He launched his career with his first book, The Land of Laughs, in 1980 and has delivered dozens more to date. Critics and audiences have tried to assign his novels a traditional genre label like fantasy, magical realism, or even the convenient catch-all of "slipstream." But even his earliest books continue to disregard genre boundaries decades after publication.
Often compared to other hard-to-label writers like Jorge Luis Borges or Haruki Murakami, Carroll's work has been a lynchpin of fiction that lies just outside the mainstream. As Carroll's friend and fellow writer Neil Gaiman said, "Jonathan Carroll's a changer. He's one of the special ones, one of the few. He paints the world he sees. He opens a window you did not know was there and invites you to look through it. He gives you his eyes to see with, and he gives you the world all fresh and honest and new."
Since the world seems unable to find the proper word for Carroll's fiction, perhaps it is enlightening to see how Carroll chooses to classify his work. "I write mixed salads," the author said.
While this assessment is, in part, Carroll's signature off-beat sense of humor, he makes a reasonably convincing argument for his use of that term. Carroll explains his "mixed salad" writing philosophy as taking a blend of every tool and experience available to him as a writer and a person: his imagination, memories, emotions, people he's loved and hated, and then finds a way to blend them. Carroll even goes as far to claim that this is the way that everyone writes, even if they don't know it. "All writers who say they don't use their life experience are liars," Carroll said. "Even if they're writing books about penguins, they're using their life experience. I read an interview with John Irving, and he said, 'No, no, I just use my imagination.' Nonsense. He's cheating."
"Mixed salad" may not satisfy those trying to pin down Carroll's genre, but it does provide some insight into one of the most exciting minds of modern fiction. Carroll's novels have a unique way of blending the mundane with the surreal. He populates his worlds with talking dogs, living tattoos, and dreamlands, which seep into his protagonists' everyday experiences.
Carroll compares work that leans too heavily on just one genre conventions or personal experience as effectively a salad containing only one ingredient. No one would want all lettuce, all dressing, or all tomatoes served on a plate, so why would they want it in literature? Carroll tackles this question in his work, interviews, and blog posts, discussing his writing technique and philosophy.
In a blog post titled "Half of Writing is Letting Go," Carroll tells writers to "Start with a phrase or a character you like or who intrigues you. Then begin to spin a spider's web out from that center point. But don't worry about it... Don't think about the final design or anything beyond the beginning — just be a spider and start to spin the web only you can design."
This free-association method is a writing approach that Carroll preaches in many of his interviews. For Carroll, the best way to write a "mixed salad" book is for the writer to try, without actually trying, to harness their mixed-up imagination, personality, and experiences on the paper, but never to forget that they still need to speak to a reader. "A writer must never forget he's writing for two—both himself and the reader," Carroll said. "If you don't do both, you're much more likely to fail."
Carroll's novels, including The Wooden Sea and From the Teeth of Angels, have struck a chord with audiences worldwide, and he's achieved widespread success in the U.S. and Europe. He currently resides in Vienna, Austria, where he's lived since the 1970s.
Jan. 26, 1949, in New York, N.Y.
Poe’s ‘The Raven’ Turns 176 Years Old
By Andria Kennedy
"Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary."
One need only hear the opening lines of Edgar Allan Poe's infamous poem "The Raven" to find their thoughts turning toward images of shadowy chambers, rattling shutters, and the ominous company of a lurking, winged presence in the corner. In 108 lines, Poe manages to distill emotional loss and anguish, conjuring gothic horror into a single iconic image that's lasted throughout the ages. Imagine how different the master of horror might linger in the memory had he chosen another bird for his vocal intruder - something that almost happened.
"The Raven" spent ten years in Poe's hands. And in that time, he considered several feathered possibilities for the poem's antagonist, including the parrot. It wasn't until he reviewed Charles Dickens's Barnaby Rudge that his eyes turned to the raven. The book's feathery character, Grip, set the wheels turning in Poe's mind, and his critique of Dickens's novel hinted at the poem to come.
"The raven, too, intensely amusing as it is, might have been made more than we now see it," Poe wrote. "Its croakings might have been prophetically heard in the course of the drama." At the time, the raven's position as a symbol of ill tidings cemented its fate, and Poe capitalized the word in the poem to imbue his bird with immortal properties.
Despite ten years of work, the poem's first submission to Graham's Magazine in 1844 met with failure. George Rex Graham, the editor, counted himself a friend of Poe's, but the staff reviewed the manuscript and "condemned the poem." Poe may have acted out of desperation, though. He and his wife - battling tuberculosis - were starving. Graham refused to publish the poem, but he sent the pair $15 of charity. Emotionally wounded and ever obsessive, Poe continued to work at his poem's lines, refining the disaster Graham dismissed.
Desperate for finances, Edgar Allan Poe sold The American Review "The Raven" for $9 - a poem set for publication under the pseudonym "Quarles." However, the manuscript wouldn't appear until the February 1845 issue. On Jan. 29, 1945, New York's Evening Mirror published the poem under Poe's name - an advanced copy. And the editor added a glowing review as a preface. In it, he called Poe "unsurpassed in English poetry for subtle composition, masterly ingenuity of versification, and consistent, sustaining of imaginative lift and pokerishness."
"The Raven" became an immediate success. Poe quickly found it reprinted in The New York Daily Tribune and The Broadway Journal (a few weeks before he took over as editor). Unfortunately, early copyright laws didn't require publications to pay for reprints. So while "The Raven" continued to appear in print, Poe and his wife remained poor. The iconic image of his jacket buttoned to his chin came from his need to disguise his shirts' ragged state.
The popularity of the poem brought him instant recognition, though. Children followed him through the streets, cawing and flapping their arms in imitation of the poem's namesake. They refused to depart until he spun around, shouting "Nevermore" in their direction.
Fame brought other detractions in the form of parodies. As early as February 1845, mocking poems popped up around the United States and across the pond in England. They included such titles as "The Owl," "The Parrot," (both considerations for Poe's flighty denizen of doom), "The Whippoorwill," "The Turkey," and "The Gazelle." While imitation may not always seem the sincerest form of flattery, Abraham Lincoln so enjoyed his friend's version ("The Polecat"), he looked up Poe's original. After that, "The Raven" became one of the president's memorized favorites.
Critics have rarely found much to praise in Poe's narrative poem. They dislike the trochaic meter, the internal rhymes, and even the gothic theme. But symbolic poets champion the piece for what it's meant to be: a cursed poet's classic writing. Poe worked over the tortured lines while his wife struggled to breathe on her bed. And she passed away two years - almost to the day - following its publication. There's no questioning of the man's ability to recognize - and express - the depths of a tormented soul. Expressed much better in the persona of a croaking raven than a squawking parrot.
"And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor
Shall be lifted - Nevermore!"
First published by the Evening Mirror on Jan. 29, 1845
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“9. Author Gloria Naylor.” American Masters Podcast. Oct 2016.
“In Gloria Naylor’s early writing, an author in search of herself.” Tierra Wilkins and Soraya McDonald. The Undefeated. Oct 6, 2016.
“Mama Day.” Gloria Naylor. Vintage. April 23, 1989.
“The Women of Brewster Place.” Gloria Naylor. Penguin Books. 1982.
“The evolution of a writer's voice: Gloria Naylor reads and reflects on her own work.” Gloria Naylor. Cornell University Library. Nov. 21, 1988.
“Interview with Jonathan Carroll.” Barbara Bienias. Interior Mad.
“The Complete Rain Taxi Interview with Jonathan Carroll.” Alan DeNiro and Kelly Everding. Rain Taxi. Feb. 2006.
“Half of Writing is Letting Go.” Jonathan Carroll. JonathanCarroll.com. Feb. 24, 2015.
“An Introduction to Jonathan Carroll.” Neil Gaiman. JonathanCarroll.com. Nov. 30, 2016.
"Edgar Allan Poe's 'The Raven' in Popular Culture." Brad Witter. Biography. Sep. 10, 2018. Updated on Jan. 23, 2020.
"9 Mournful Facts About Edgar Allan Poe's 'The Raven.'" Joy Lazendorfer. Mental Floss. Oct. 26, 2015.
"On Edgar Allan Poe's 'The Raven.'" Dana Gioia.
"Did Edgar Allan Poe Really Write 'The Raven' in Saratoga Springs?" Sophia Perez. Saratoga Living. Feb. 2, 2018.
"A Creepy Tragic Formula for Commercial Success." Jennifer Latson. Time. Jan. 29, 2015.
"'The Raven' by Edgar Allan Poe was Published 175 Years Ago Today." Greg Young. The Bowery Boys. Jan. 29, 2020.
Notable Literary Births & Events for Jan. 25-31
John Cooper Clarke
Julia Ward Howe becomes the first woman elected to the National Institute of Arts & Letters (1908)
Mary Mapes Dodge
Philip José Farmer
Congress passes act placing library in the U.S. Capitol (1802)
Pride and Prejudice is published (1813)
Edgar Allan Poe's "The Raven" is published by the New York Evening Mirror (1845)
Allan W. Eckert
Hans Erich Nossack
Barbara W. Tuchman
U.S. Congress approves of acquiring Thomas Jefferson's library to restore the Library of Congress after British forces burned the library's collection (1815)