This Week in Literary History: Sep. 28-Oct. 4
Recognizing the births of Ta-Nehisi Coates and Wallace Stevens
|Sep 28, 2020||2|
It’s an exciting week here in Bidwell Hollow. For the first time, writers other than myself contribute literary history stories for you to enjoy. This week’s pieces are by Emily Quiles and Christine Kingery.
As I mentioned in Friday’s email, paid subscriptions are currently on hold, giving all Bidwell Hollow subscribers access to the This Week in Literary History emails. Paid subscriptions will resume down the road, but I’ll give everyone advance notice before they do.
In the meantime, enjoy each Monday’s stories about notable writers and literary events. And below is a list of upcoming notable births and events.
Thanks for reading,
Curiosity and Obsessiveness Help Ta-Nehisi Coates Dissect Our World
By Emily Quiles
When Ta-Nehisi Coates would get in trouble at school, he often mentioned that his mother, Cheryl Lynn, would sit him down to write reflective essays.
“By which I mean not simply organizing a set of sentences into a series of paragraphs, but organizing them as a means of investigation,” reads Coates’s 2015 essay, Between the World and Me.
He would answer, ‘Why did I feel the need to talk at the same time as my teacher?’ and ‘What would I do the next time I felt the urge to talk to my friends during a lesson?’
His mother’s instructions to journal into his subconscious gave him the gift of self-awareness. “Here was the lesson: I was not an innocent,” Coates wrote. “My impulses were not filled with unfailing virtue.”
The writer was born into the crack epidemic in west Baltimore’s neighborhood Mondawmin in 1975 (he turns 45 on Wednesday).
“I didn’t understand why my world was different,” he told Terry Gross, host of NPR’s Fresh Air.
“I mean I’m talking about 10, 11, 12-year-kids with guns out on the corner selling crack,” he continued. “It changed the temperature. It changed the volume. It changed how the city felt.”
His father, Paul Coates, gave him the unraveling gift of knowledge. He was a local captain of the Black Panther Party and ran a small Afrocentric publishing company called Black Classic Press out of their basement.
He read from his father’s collection including, Children of the Sun, Wonderful Ethiopians of the Ancient Cushite Empire, The African Origin of Civilization, and Chancellor Williams, J. A. Rogers, and John Jackson.
Literature was a way for him to gain a deeper understanding of society’s dissection of the Black body for which he routinely saw at school, in the greater community, and on the screen.
“I devoured them. I devoured all of them,” Coates laughed with Gross. He explained his father’s basement held the world’s history.
The writer studied at Howard University for five years. Yet decided to leave when his curious mind took him to the journalism world – without a degree.
“[Journalism] gives you a license to answer all the questions that you have in the back of your mind,” he said in an interview with PBS NewsHour.
“People perceive you as an expert, but in fact, what you are if you’re doing journalism, right, you’re an actual student.”
Coates established his journalism career as a national correspondent for The Atlantic, where he stories on culture, politics, and social issues. He’s most known for his work covering Black people who were killed by neighbors, the police, or perfect strangers — including Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, and Renisha McBride — and about Prince Jones, a friend who was killed by the police in 2000.
Chris Jackson, Coates’s editor and the publisher of One World, an imprint of Random House, said that Coates’s curiosity is “matched with a kind of obsessiveness.”
“He would read 1,000 books about the Civil War. He would talk to every scholar. He’d read novels and slave narratives. Then, at a certain point, he started to synthesize all this information into some conclusions about, ‘what does this mean?’”
Coates has authored the Marvel Comics book series Black Panther, The Beautiful Struggle, Between the World and Me, and We Were Eight Years in Power. He has also received a MacArthur Fellowship and the National Book Award in non-fiction.
According to the New York Times, Between the World and Me was adopted on college syllabuses and translated into 19 languages.
More recently, his writing has been re-circulated on social media in reaction to George Floyd, who was killed by the police in late May.
Many are trying to answer the very questions Coates was in search of as a child. Yet now his writing is among the collective voices on social justice.
“I’m trying to communicate as directly and forcefully and honestly, as possible,” he said during the segment with PBS NewsHour. “My argument is, in fact, we have a much, much deeper problem. And that is that we are asking the police to do certain things that maybe they shouldn’t do.” That was back in 2015.
Coates now lives in Harlem with his wife and son, Samori Maceo-Paul Coates – named after Coates’s father and Samori Ture, a Mandé chief who fought French colonialism.
Coates wrote Between the World as a letter to his son about being Black in America.
“I have given you these same assignments… not because I thought they would curb your behavior – they certainly did not curb mine – but because these were the earliest acts of interrogation, of drawing myself into consciousness.”
Remembering the Poet Who Socked Hemingway In the Face
By Christine Kingery
When Wallace Stevens punched Ernest Hemingway in the face in 1936 in Key West, the scene perfectly illustrated the two literary heavyweights' defining characteristics.
Stevens, drunk at a dinner party, impugned Hemingway's manhood in front of the novelist's sister. Insulted (and perhaps a little amused), Hemingway marched right down the street to the dinner party to confront Stevens.
It wasn't a fair fight. Lean 36-year-old Hemingway knocked Stevens down repeatedly. Stevens, whom Hemingway described as "sort of pleasant like the cholera" carried a fleshy 56-year-old insurance salesman physique and managed to land one laughable punch.
"Mr. Stevens hit me flush on the jaw with his Sunday punch bam like that," said Hemingway. "And this is very funny. Broke his hand in two places. Didn't harm my jaw at all and so put him down again and then fixed him good so he was in a room for five days with a nurse and Dr. working on him."
Jealousy over the accomplishments of the Key West literati, including Robert Frost, with whom he had a long and public feud fueled Stevens' machismo. Stevens struggled with the mundane realities of life, and the conflict and dichotomy between physical reality and "transformative power of the imagination" characterized his poetry.
As an outsider looking at Stevens' life, it's not difficult to understand why Stevens opted for a constructed reality. Despite early literary success in 1923 with the publication of his first book of poems, Harmonium, Stevens didn't reach the acclaim he sought until just before he died, winning the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1955.
Stevens worked most of his life for the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Co. in Hartford, Conn., despite—or because of—a father who directed him towards a professional career, an undergraduate degree from Harvard, and a law degree from New York Law School.
He fell in love with and married the beautiful Elsie Kachel, who was purported to be the iconic face on the dime before F.D.R. replaced it. Elsie was "prim and humorless," and not the intellectual and philosophical match that Stevens was. After their only child's birth, their marriage evolved into an "uneven and distant partnership."
In contrast to the banality of real life, Stevens sought whimsy (consider the titles of some of his poems: "Floral Decorations for Bananas;" "Anatomy of Monotony;" "Frogs Eat Butterflies, Snakes Eat Frogs, Hogs Eat Snakes, Men Eat Hogs") and inspirational words and imagery. He went so far as to weave made-up words in his poetry.
Through masterful blank verse, Stevens repeatedly argues for spirituality without God, challenging the idea of Heaven and the effort of living a good life. In "The Good Man Has No Shape" Stevens writes, "Through centuries he lived in poverty. | God was his only elegance…"
Stevens' well-known masterpiece "The Emperor of Ice-Cream" continues to play with these themes, juxtaposing reality and illusion with beautifully alliterative lines: "Call the roller of big cigars | The muscular one, and bid him whip | In kitchen cups concupiscent curds."
The poem describes a funeral in which Stevens makes fun of the formalities of ceremony, suggesting that our society makes a bigger deal out of death and human life's dignity than is warranted.
"Wenches dawdle in such dress" as they care for the deceased, and Stevens asks to "let the boys | bring flowers in last month's newspapers" instead of fine flower vases. In the end, "Let be be finale of seem. | The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream"– a final call to the absurdity of dignity.
Stevens' yearly trips to Key West inspired him to dream of a different reality, and he set off to create fanciful scenes, such as in his acclaimed "The Idea of Order at Key West," which begins "She sang beyond the genius of the sea." The poem is a visual and auditory masterpiece:
If it was only the outer voice of sky
And cloud, of the sunken coral water-walled,
However clear, it would have been deep air,
The heaving speech of air, a summer sound
Repeated in a summer without end
And sound alone.
In the end, it is Stevens' literary legacy that has survived, prevailing over the reality of the insurance salesman-turned-poet. Wallace Stevens was born on October 2, 1879, in Reading, Pa. and died on August 2, 1955, in Hartford, Conn. Stevens received the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for his Collected Poems in 1955.
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"Ta-Nehisi Coates' 'Beautiful Struggle' To Manhood." NPR. June 19, 2009.
"Ta-Nehisi Coates Is Leaving The Atlantic." Jacey Fortin. The New York Times. Jul. 20, 2018.
"Ta-Nehisi Coates and the Making of a Public Intellectual." Concepción de León. Sep. 29, 2017.
"Ta-Nehisi Coates On Discussing Racism Directly, Honestly." PBS News Hour. Jul. 2, 2015.
"Letter to My Son." Ta-Nehisi Coates. The Atlantic. Jul. 4, 2015.
"The Case for Reparations." Ta-Nehisi Coates. The Atlantic. June 2014.
"Black Panther: A Nation Under Our Feet." Marvel.
“Hemingway Knocked Wallace Stevens into a Puddle and Bragged About It.” Littorial | Key West Life of Letters. Key West Literary Seminar. Accessed Sept. 23, 2020.
“Wallace Stevens: 1879-1955.” Poets.org. Accessed September 23, 2020.
“Insurance Man: The life and art of Wallace Stevens.” Peter Schjeldahl. The New Yorker. April 25, 2016. Accessed Sept. 23, 2020.
Burdette, R. W. (2005). Renaissance of American Coinage, 1916-1921. (pp. 172). Seneca Mill Press LLC.
“The Contemplated Spouse: The Letters of Wallace Stevens to Elsie.” Ed. J. Donald Blount. The University of South Carolina Press. 2006. Accessed Sept. 23, 2020.
Stevens, Wallace. (1923) “The Good Man Has No Shape.” Harmonium. Alfred A. Knopf.
Stevens, Wallace. (1999) “The Emperor of Ice-Cream.” In N. Baym (Ed). The Norton Anthology of American Literature. (Shorter 5th ed., pp. 1891) W. W. Norton & Company.
Stevens, Wallace. (1999) “The Idea of Order at Key West.” In N. Baym (Ed). The Norton Anthology of American Literature. (Shorter 5th ed., pp. 1899) W. W. Norton & Company.
Notable Literary Births and Events for Sep. 28-Oct. 4
George W.S. Trow
Kate Douglas Wiggin
Miguel de Cervantes
Stuart M. Kaminsky
Samuel F. Pickering, Jr.
First volume of Little Women is published in 1860
William Thomas Beckford
Daniel J. Boorstin
Brian P. Cleary
David Herbert Donald
First installment of Madame Bovary is published in 1856
Natalie Savage Carlson
Donald J. Sobol