(On the forgotten 50th anniversary of a once-controversial convict's execution, Beat historian and Library of Congress archivist Alan Bisbort provides a sweeping summary of the prison-writing genre, and the therapeutic invention that once supported the genre. -- Levi)
Fifty years ago, on the morning of May 2, 1960, the State of California executed Caryl Chessman in the gas chamber at San Quentin Prison.
For more than a decade prior to that date, Chessman had been a thorn in the state’s side, as well as a pinprick at America’s conscience and an international cause celebre. His case drew support from all corners of the globe and all areas of human endeavor, from the sacred (Pope John, Albert Schweitzer) to the profane (Marlon Brando, Steve Allen, Shirley MacLaine), from the literary (Aldous Huxley, Christopher Isherwood and, yes, William F. Buckley, Jr.) to the mundane, with petitions to the California governor to spare Chessman’s life coming from millions of people around the world who’d been touched by his case and his writings. From Brazil alone, a plea for Chessman’s life sent to Governor Edmund “Pat” Brown in March 1960 contained 2.3 million signatures, as well as offers from forty Brazilians, many of them women, to die in his place. And when he was finally killed, after 12 years on death row and eight stays of execution, riots broke out in European and Latin American cities.
Screw stuff white people like. This is stuff I like:
1. With Amazon Crossing, the well-funded online bookstore is taking an active role in publishing international authors across boundaries. Good move, Amazon. Speaking of international authors, a fifth Words Without Borders anthology, Tablet and Pen: Literary Landscapes from the Modern Middle East, is coming out. Way to be productive, WWB!
2. Something else we like: Ghostbusters invade the main branch of the New York Public Library to protest library budget cuts. What's really interesting about this latest effort by Improv Everywhere is that the apparently desperate New York Public Library actually allowed it to take place (though they don't seem to have warned the people in the library). Nice! We've gone way beyond "ssssssh!" by now.
2. It's very weird that attempted Times Square terrorist Faisal Shahzad left a DVD of the anomie-striven movie Up In The Air to be found in his home. Novelist Walter Kirn, who we recently interviewed about the film of his book, wrote this on Twitter: "times sq. bomber leaving behind copy of 'up in the air' reminds me of chapman, lennon's killer, and catcher in the rye. icky feeling now."
"Our reason is quite satisfied, in nine hundred and ninety-nine cases out of every thousand of us, if it can find a few arguments that will do to recite in case our credulity is criticised by some one else. Our faith is faith in some one else's faith, and in the greatest matters this is most the case.
Our belief in truth itself, for instance, that there is a truth, and that our minds and it are made for each other, — what is it but a passionate affirmation of desire, in which our social system backs us up?"
- William James, 'The Will to Believe', 1896.
Strip down any of the hot political debates of the day -- health care, Wall Street, global warming, Afghanistan -- and what you'll find at the center is not principle but willful desire. We prove that we know this when we criticize our opponents for their shallow, self-serving views. We'll say, "they just believe that because they want to believe it". It's sometimes the only explanation that makes sense. Alas, the criticism holds up equally on all sides, as our own opponents will also be happy to point out.
I'm thrilled that the Library of Congress (basically, the literary arm of the United States government) will be archiving all of Twitter. And I'm surprised that several smart people out there are mocking or complaining about this announcement. Most of the conversation is on Twitter, of course.
If you are a publisher or publicist who sends me books to review, please note that I have changed my mailing address:
328 8th Avenue #337
New York NY 10001
Also, if you're a publisher or publicist who sends me books to review, please know that I'm probably sorry for being so absolutely terrible about getting back to you. My review copy situation is a mess, I never get around to answering emails in time, but I do appreciate when you send me a book I'm interested in and I will try to be better about keeping in touch.
And now ... some more interesting stuff:
1, A font face captures Franz Kafka's handwriting, which turns out be rather pretty in a Kafkaesque sort of way.
2. Tablet Magazine interviews eternal Fug Tuli Kupferberg and points us to his excellent YouTube Channel. I love the audience participation in this little-known literary facts video, in which Tuli reveals that T. S. Eliot was Jewish, that Walt Whitman was heterosexual, that Homer's Iliad was actually written by a guy named Iliad, and that when Dylan Thomas drank himself to death his drink of choice was strawberry milkshakes. All true.
1. In honor of the Knack's lead singer Doug Fieger, who passed away on Valentines Day, here's Sherman Alexie's tribute to "My Sharona". It was a pretty good song, and the best use of an octave in a riff since Jimi Hendrix's "Purple Haze".
2. I'm enjoying watching the Vancouver Winter Olympics on TV, but I often sense something basically unwholesome about the amount of buildup and tension that underlies this approach to competition. How is it good for an athlete to train for four years to lead up to a performance that lasts, in many cases, less than a minute? This leads to an emphasis on perfection, a dreadful and unnatural fear of error. This doesn't strike me as a mentally and emotionally healthy approach to sport, and I hate to see the look of shame that follows an excellent achievement marred by a single mistake. Personally, I prefer a more organic, holistic attitude towards competition. Maybe that's why baseball is still my favorite spectator sport. With 162 games a year and three hours per game, we get to know and appreciate the whole athlete, mistakes and quirks and all. Perfection, in my opinion, is rarely worth pursuing. That's what I think.
1. What on earth are these little kids doing on this "Kiddie-A-Go-Go" 1967 TV show? Is it the Pony? The Frug, the Watusi, the Mashed Potato, the Alligator? It's pretty cute and weird, whatever they're doing.
2. Friend of LitKicks (FOL) Tim Barrus at Electric Literature! What a combination.
Oh, he had to go out last night and meet this television writer for a drink downtown, in the Village and all. That's what started it. He says the only people he ever really wants to meet for a drink somewhere are all either dead or unavailable. He says he never even wants to have lunch with anybody, even, unless he thinks there's a good chance it's going to turn out to be Jesus, the person -- or the Buddha, or Hui-neng, or Shankaracharya, or somebody like that.
-- J. D. Salinger, Franny and Zooey
The Zen bard of Cornish, New Hampshire has died, according to his son.