(We've been talking to novelist Roxana Robinson about her unique family history, which includes two celebrated 19th century Americans, Henry Ward Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe. In this conclusion to the two-part interview, we talk about Harriet Beecher Stowe, about religion in fiction, and about Roxana's own mission as a writer.)
LEVI: It's true, as you say, that Harriet Beecher Stowe's literary reputation currently suffers. She's seen as melodramatic, long-winded – a second-rate novelist. I didn't read Uncle Tom's Cabin myself until just recently, and I was happily surprised at the richness I found. Isn't this as well-written as any novel by Charles Dickens or Nathaniel Hawthorne? It's a riveting work, filled with psychological complexity and carefully drawn characters. Do you have any idea how her reputation got so bad? Was there a period in which she fell in public esteem?
As for the perception of Harriet Beecher Stowe as racist – I can only say that this is a terrible injustice. I wonder if the hot issues Harriet Beecher Stowe handled so bravely are still too controversial for us to see her fairly today. Do you know if she was often attacked or criticized on these terms during her life, and if so, how she responded to it?
ROXANA: In 1949 James Baldwin wrote a polemical essay called “Everybody’s Protest Novel,” in which he attacks the idea of the protest novel in general, and Uncle Tom’s Cabin in particular. It is a fierce and angry piece of writing, much of it graceful and eloquent. Baldwin was, of course, highly respected as a novelist and essayist, and he offered a black voice in the literary world, at a time when a black voice was rare and very welcome. But this essay is not particularly well reasoned or well-wrought. He begins by dismissing Uncle Tom’s Cabin as “a very bad novel.” He calls it sentimental and compares it, with contempt, to Little Women.
There's a moment in Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson’s Mo' Meta Blues: The World According to Questlove when Ben Greenman (the book's co-writer and the co-manager of Questlove’s the Roots) makes the observation that the Roots is one of the few bands – perhaps the only band – left in hiphop.
I used to buy records in a Chicago shop called the Jazz Record Mart on Grand Avenue. It was run by a guy named Bob Koester, a jazz and blues fanatic. He also had his own record company, Delmark Records, where he recorded a lot of blues artists who'd been passed over by Chess Records. The record shop was incredible. It was piled floor to ceiling with jazz and blues records. Bruce Iglauer, who went on to start Alligator Records, worked behind the counter. On any given day you might spot a well-known blues musician flipping through the stacks or talking to Koester.
The first time I went down to the Jazz Record Mart with a friend, Alex, I stocked up on Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf records. Alex bought a single album: Hoodoo Man Blues by Junior Wells. It was recorded by Bob Koester on his Delmark label. We rushed back to Alex’s house and put the record on. The album cover was an atmospheric black and white shot of Junior Wells playing in some after-hours blues dive, cigarette smoke surrounding him in a thick cloud, his harmonica in one hand. The music on the album was just as atmospheric. Most of the blues albums on Chess were really just compendiums of greatest hits, with maybe some filler thrown in, but Hoodoo Man Blues was a real album, with continuity, songs leading into other songs, all sounding like they were recorded live at, say, Theresa’s, a blues club on the South Side where Junior Wells often played. The guitar player, who very subtly supported Junior’s singing and harp playing, but also showed some occasional flash, was credited as “Friendly Chap”. We asked Koester about this and he told us that “Friendly Chap” was in reality the guitarist Buddy Guy. Buddy was under contract to the Chess brothers, so to avoid legal hassles Koester listed him under a fictitious name.
This is the last of five blog posts inspired by the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg. As I struggle to write this one today, I'm forced to admit two things that you'll very rarely ever hear me say.
First, I feel humbled. Second, I am at a loss for words.
With all this acting experience behind me, Shelton thought I was ready for a crack at the movies. Not Hollywood, just Astoria, Long Island. He got me a part out there playing mob scenes in a picture with Paul Robeson. From that I got a real part in a short featuring Duke Ellington. It was a musical, with a little story to it, and it gave me a chance to sing a song -- a real weird and pretty blues number. That was the good thing about the part.
The rough part, of course, was that I had to play a chippie. Opposite me there was a comedian who'll kill me because I can't remember his name. He played my pimp or sweetheart. He was supposed to knock me around.
He knocked me down about twenty times the first day of shooting. Each time I took a fall I landed on the hard old floor painted to look like sidewalk. And there was nothing to break my falls except the flesh on my bones. The second morning when I showed up at the studio I was so sore I couldn't even think about breaking my falls. I must have hit that hard painted pavement about fifty times before the man hollered "Cut."
I saw a little bit of this epic one time at the studio, but that was all. Mom, of course, thought I was going to be a big movie star and she told everyone to watch for the picture. I don't know if anybody else saw it, but we never did. It was just a short subject, something they filled in with when they couldn't get Mickey Mouse. We'd have had to hire a private detective to find out where the hell it was playing.
What a voice. Rich, dark, sassy, slangy and street-smart. Funny, bitter, bristling with innocent joy. I'm talking about Billie Holiday's voice, but I'm not talking about her singing voice. I'm talking about her memoir, Lady Sings the Blues by Billie Holiday with William Dufty, published in 1956:
(Since literature and music are two of my biggest passions, I am naturally fascinated by rock memoirs. I find much significance within these books, and in the shadows that surround them. The Great Lost Rock Memoir is a new Literary Kicks series devoted to the art and psychology of the rock memoir, with a special emphasis on older books that may now be out of print. Today, we're examining the memoir of one of the most brilliant, innovative and courageous singer-songwriters of all time: Mr. Chuck Berry of St. Louis, Missouri.)
It's fitting that the guy who singlehandedly invented rock and roll when he recorded a song called "Mabellene" at Chess studios in Chicago on May 21, 1955 would later become an early innovator in the rock memoir field. Chuck Berry: The Autobiography was published in 1987, when the author was sixty years old. He wrote the book without a ghostwriter, and says so in the opening sentence:
This book is entirely written, phrase by phrase, by yours truly, Chuck Berry.
The prickly pride revealed in this declaration is familiar to anybody who follows Chuck Berry, who is famously irascible, contrary and unpredictable. His genius for spontaneous creativity mixed with interpersonal dysfunctionality is best shown by his typical refusal to rehearse with the backup bands hired to play behind him in concert. I've enjoyed a couple of Chuck Berry concerts, and I've seen how the edgy uncertainty of an unrehearsed band playing a headline show with a legend always adds some electricity to the room. The unpredictable liveliness of his shows is one reason that 86-year-old Chuck Berry still packs houses today (see him while you can).
He also writes an electrifying memoir, and not the superficial memoir one might expect. As a songwriter, Chuck Berry is rarely introspective or analytical. He's more of a humorist with a guitar, specializing in clever, naughty rhymes. His lyrics also reveal a warm emotional sensitivity, a breezy way with descriptive detail, and a big taste for delicious words in harmonious meters.
I had a chance to check out Washington DC's new Martin Luther King memorial earlier this week. A big opening ceremony featuring President Barack Obama and other significant guests scheduled for this weekend has been postponed for an approaching hurricane, but the memorial is open to visitors, and I found a large and enthusiastic crowd on the day I dropped by.
I was surprised -- maybe I shouldn't have been? -- that nearly everybody besides me who came out to see the memorial was African-American. This points to a disappointing fact I've observed before: even though Martin Luther King has now been enshrined in American history as a legend, a hero and a cliche, his great universal message of activism through nonviolent resistance remains largely neglected and misunderstood in America and around the world. The King approach to solving problems feels every bit as startlingly innovative and unique today as it did in the 1960s. The miraculous fact that King's patient, compromise-based approach can actually succeed in solving "unsolvable" conflicts remains widely ignored, even though the problems we face today are as severe as the problems King faced so brilliantly and successfully in his time. Most people would rather gripe, whine and fight each other than take a risk on loving their neighbors and trying to truly understand and cope with variant points of view.
Martin Luther King never had an easy time getting his peaceful message across. It's well known today that he and his fellow activists had to endure vicious taunts and provocations by their opponents, but King also took a hard beating, often for different reasons, in the allegedly liberal mainstream media, and another hard beating from many of his fellow African-American activists. Like any leader who tries to compromise and rise above the pettiness of simple hatred, he took it from the left and the right, from black and white, from north and south. An early John Updike short story called "Marching Through Boston", published in the New Yorker in January 1966, delivers a refreshingly direct look at how Martin Luther King was seen in his own time.
1. Here's a newly-found old video of Beat Generation/Summer of Love poet Michael McClure reading poetry to caged lions. The last section of the poem consists of McClure yelling "roar" repeatedly. The video might strike some as precious -- Steve Silberman called it "beat kitsch" in a recent tweet -- but it gets cool around the time the lions start roaring back in harmony with McClure. If you can get a bunch of lions to respond to your poetry, you must be doing something right.
2. Suzuki Beane! I heard long ago that YA-novelist Louise Fitzhugh (Harriet the Spy is her most famous book, though I liked The Long Secret even better) began her writing career with an illustrated book, Suzuki Beane, a parody of Hilary Knight's Eloise starring a punky kid with beatnik parents. But I'd never been able to find a copy of the book until I saw a link to this digital version in a Boing-Boing article that also links to a surprising TV show pilot version of the book (the show never got made, which is too bad, because it looks pretty cute). Serious fans of Harriet M. Welsch, Sport and Beth-Ellen will find many echoes of their favorite Fitzhugh books in Suzuki Beane, particularly in the affectionate depictions of the tortuous relationships that sometimes exist between eccentric, artistic parents and their stubborn kids.
Jay-Z puts out one major release every year, most often in November. Usually it's a record, another installment in the lyrical autobiography that has made up his life's work. This year it's a book, Decoded, and Jay showed up at the New York Public Library last night to talk about it.
Decoded rocks a golden Andy Warhol Rorschach image on its front cover, hinting at the psychological self-exploration that has always been Jay-Z's specialty. The book's heft, dramatic packaging and thematic chapter structure indicate a serious work, and a highly deliberate encounter with the literary form. I was hoping to hear Jay talk about his writing process and his literary inspirations at the NYPL, but the onstage interview with Paul Holdengraber and Cornel West was such a high-energy affair that, after an hour and three quarters of intense conversation, we never even got around to that topic.
I spent some time in a bookstore yesterday deciding whether or not to buy The Bridge, the first major biography of Barack Obama, written by David Remnick, editor of the New Yorker. I'm eager to learn about Obama's background, but a cruise through the pages failed to motivate me towards the checkout counter.
I adore a good exploratory biography, one that meanders through its subject's past to tap into the richness of a solitary human life tinged with destiny. I like and respect David Remnick, but I quickly gathered that The Bridge takes a Bob Woodward-esque approach, chronicling not the private but the public aspects of Obama's life, primarily through an immense series of interviews. In today's New York Times Book Review, critic Garry Wills refers to The Bridge as an "exhaustively researched" life of Obama, and by this he means that David Remnick probably exhausted himself talking to Obama's peers and old friends, gaining every possible vantage point from which to see him. But I prefer biographies that aim, more riskily, to get inside their subject's minds (like, for instance, this one, which I recently praised). The Bridge appears to lack the novelistic blush that enlivens a great work of biography. It seems rather to be a work of professional journalism, a 656-page magazine piece, more topical than existential.