Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë is often considered one of the great Victorian romances, mentioned in the same breath as classics like Pride and Prejudice and her sister Charlotte’s most famous work, Jane Eyre. But where Jane is a love story through and through, from the early meet-cute to the closing “Reader, I married him,” Wuthering Heights is a “love story” only in the most literal sense. The narrative turns on the love between two people, but ultimately, it is the story of a dysfunctional relationship between highly destructive people, whom we’re not meant to “root for” any more than we are the central couples of Tender Is the Night or Revolutionary Road.
The character Heathcliff, in particular, has been remembered as the quintessential Gothic romantic hero. And there are trappings within the novel that encourage this interpretation; Heathcliff suffers a truly tragic childhood, he is a social outcast through no fault of his own, and while he demonstrates a capacity for cruelty early and often, he always refrains from victimizing Catherine. So as a result of conditioning from the tropes of countless romantic novels, the reader is primed to spend the entire novel waiting for Heathcliff’s inevitable redemption.
But the novel is brilliant precisely because it never indulges such romantic fantasies. Brontë shrewdly plays on the reader’s vicarious desire to “save” Heathcliff’s sensitive, tortured soul by opening with a stereotypically romantic premise, and then continually disabusing the reader of any notion that Heathcliff is somehow redeemable. His abusive relationship with the naïve Isabella, especially, is a indictment of his innately sadistic, even sociopathic character. She is an innocent, but he exacts psychological torment on her for sport, even going so far as to throw a knife at her at one point. In this episode, he himself admits that he is incapable of mercy or remorse: “The more the worms writhe, the more I yearn to crush out their entrails! It is a moral teething; and I grind with greater energy, in proportion to the increase of pain.”
Photo of Donald Trump signing a bobble head of himself courtesy of Matt A.J.
Political campaigns, like novels, have a beginning, middle, and end. Hard as it may be to believe, we are still in Act Two of the story that will come to be the 2016 presidential election.
Act One is comprised of everything that happens in an election prior to the first primary and caucus votes being cast. Normally, that covers a lot of ground, but this election cycle it was positively Tolstoyian thanks to more than a dozen Republican candidates in the field.
Act Three won’t begin until the nominees have been confirmed after the conventions. For the Democrats, former Secretary of Hillary Clinton is virtually assured to carry her party’s banner into the fall. The Republicans are a separate matter. There is some uncertainty as to whether Donald Trump will acquire the requisite number of delegates to lock up the GOP nomination. Even if he does, the distaste for him even within the GOP is so deep that efforts by so-called “party leaders” are underway to thwart him. This may happen before the convention in Cleveland in late July. It may happen during the convention. It may not happen at all.
This is of enormous benefit to Clinton because it gives her a head start, by a couple of months at least, to control the themes of the final act of the 2016 election. History shows that the candidate who controls the terms of the discussion—i.e. the themes—has the best chance of being victorious.Continue Reading
Maryland Army National Guard Soldiers and local law enforcement watch protesters gathered in front of City Hall, Baltimore, April 30, 2015. The marchers shouted slogans calling for justice, equality and peace for fellow Baltimore residents. The Maryland National Guard was activated for the first time since 1968 to assist with peacekeeping operations while unrest continues in Baltimore. (Photo by U.S. Army National Guard Sgt. Margaret Taylor, 29th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment)
Meet your narrator: a white woman who runs a community-based literary organization for Black kids. Your setting? Baltimore.
A year ago, your narrator sat around with four other writers. Three of us white, one Black, one Asian. We were trying to figure out how to talk about the events of April 27, 2015. “Riot” fixated on property damage. “Protests” occurred, but those which took place after April 27 were organized in a way that the initial events weren’t.
By April 28, individuals present at Penn-North had coined the term “Baltimore Uprising.” Called thugs by the same media that praised Egyptians in 2011, the neighborhood of Sandtown-Winchester felt an urgency to tell their own story. Their story begins long before April 12, the night of Freddie Gray’s arrest. Their story is framed by the 51.8% of residents ages 16 – 64 who are unemployed and the 33% of residential properties that sit vacant. But “coming up with a name and a hashtag was a luxury we didn’t have time to commit energy to while in the midst of it,” Dr. Herber Brown III, a Black pastor and prominent community organizer, told me.
As the events of April 27, 2015 are processed into history — in museums, in textbooks, in our collective imagination — we need to think about who the words belong to. And as a white woman, this is a place where the words do not belong to me.Continue Reading
From the announcement of the 2016 Pulitzer Prize winners to Prince’s death, here’s last week’s literary news:
- The 2016 Pulitzer Prize winners have been announced. Literary winners include The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen for Fiction, Custer’s Trials: A Life on the Frontier of a New America by T.J. Stiles for History, Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life by William Finnegan for Biography/Autobiography, Ozone Journal by Peter Balakian for Poetry, Black Flags: The Rise of ISIS by Joby Warrick for General Nonfiction, and Hamilton by Lin-Manuel Miranda for Drama.
- The copyright infringement lawsuit against Google was brought to a halt last week after the Supreme Court denied The Authors Guild’s appeal. The appeal was brought to the Supreme Court in February after it was ruled that Google’s scanning of books “constituted ‘fair use’, and that ‘Google Books provide significant public benefits.’” The case has been in the courts since 2005. Following this ruling, The Authors Guild legal counsel, Jan Constantine, announced her resignation. The timing is not a coincidence: in a letter to guild council members, Constantine wrote, “It is only fitting that I take leave of the Authors Guild a week after the lawsuit was over.”
- The beloved musician Prince passed away on Thursday, April 21 at the age of 57. Just one month ago fans received the news that Prince would be releasing a memoir in fall of 2017. Now, it’s uncertain whether the memoir, which held the working title The Beautiful Ones, will ever reach publication. Bustle noted that Prince was probably still “very much in the process of writing the memoir.” Random House has not yet commented on the status of the memoir, including whether there will be a posthumous release.
For years, I finished every book I started. Short collections, slim volumes of poetry, novels fat with lyricism, the latest tome from Neal Stephenson—I soldiered through them all. Then, a few years out of grad school, on my morning bus ride to work, I found myself falling asleep in the same three paragraph stretch of a short, award-winning novel, waking up and trying to reread it, and falling asleep again. That book—a book my writer friends raved about—put me to sleep three times before I gave up on it. It was the first book I had stopped reading that I could remember, and it felt incredible.
Juliet Lapidos, writing for The Atlantic, argues that a reader should finish every book she starts. Lapidos proposes three reasons for continuing to read a book even when you’re dying to put it down:
- Pleasure. Because some books are late bloomers. “I can’t count how many novels have bored me for a hundred or even two hundred pages,” she writes, “only to later amaze me with their brilliance.”
- Fortitude. Because it’s a sign of strength to finish a novel you hate. “[Reading Atonement] built up my ability to endure intellectual anguish—something I need in my job as an editor,” Lapidos writes. “This essay is terrible, I think to myself, but I got through Atonement. I can get through anything.”
- Respect. Because somebody worked hard to write that book you hate, and literary people support writers. My favorite zinger from the Lapidos piece: “Starting, but not finishing, books is one step above saying, ‘Oh yeah, I’ve heard of that author.’”
I support Lapidos’s project; most people do stop reading books too easily, and they’re likely depriving themselves of the pleasure of completing them. What bothers me about her argument, however, is that it assumes that difficult books often end up being rewarding (sometimes they don’t), that finishing bad books builds character (this seems draconian), and that just because a writer finished a book, their endeavor is worthy of respect (guess how many storybooks Donald Trump has written).Continue Reading
In the term short story, “short” is a little baggy. You might find, within a collection of short stories, some that are a few pages, some that are thirty or more. Compared to a five-hundred-page novel, of course, neither of these is a long piece of writing. Both are compressed worlds. But the very short short story and the very long short story have different ways of folding a whole world in.
To me, very short stories often have the feel of stunts: daring balancing acts, high up on ledges. Once the pose is successfully struck—creating the kind of image that lingers on the insides of the eyelids—it’s time to back away. This kind of intensity is only briefly sustainable. To create such a picture in so few words, sentences sometimes have to cover vast swaths of life. Grace Paley is the master of this. In her short story “Wants,” only a couple of pages long, the narrator runs into her ex-husband while returning some years-overdue library books. He tells her their marriage ended because she never invited a couple they knew over for dinner.
That’s possible, I said. But really, if you remember: first, my father was sick that Friday, then the children were born, then I had those Tuesday-night meetings, then the war began. Then we didn’t seem to know them anymore.
By the end of the story we can see this decades-long marriage, and the narrator’s current life.Continue Reading
In late February I finished up the translation of a novel. In mid-March my son was born. Caring for a baby is not all too different than dealing with a challenging translation, though granted the hours are less convenient and the boss often poses unreasonable demands. In both cases there is proper procedure—first draft, dictionary look-up, napping only on one’s back, nursing every 3-4 hours—and then there are a myriad unexpected circumstances and improvised solutions—diaper blowouts, colic, one-hand cooking, rhymes, puns, and slang. For each unforeseeable problem there is a makeshift troubleshooting process, parts of which may not be approved by the American Literary Translators Association or by the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Every day begins in working by the book. With my child, I feed and burp and change him. With a translation, I sit down with the original (either in book form, or, more conveniently, in PDF form) and with my Word translation file, and start filling the screen with words. The first draft is quick and dirty, quite literal, unassuming: word for word, ignoring more accomplished grammatical structures, putting baby back in his crib with a little half-hearted lullaby. Scrolling down fast from one page to the next is a great feeling, striking them off the checklist, clocking in work hours and often coming up with some inspired turns of phrase on the go.
Then something unexpected happens: an inscrutable sentence, a bit of localized slang, a joke, a pun, a play on words. Baby is awake and crying, and it isn’t hunger, and it isn’t any kind of discomfort that I can put into clear words. A solution is necessary.Continue Reading
There’s a difference between what the narrator views as the story and what the reader views as the story. By playing with that distance, writers can illuminate the deeper desires of their characters, revealed by what they choose to focus on in the telling, and what they don’t. In Eric Braun’s “My Beard,” from Redivider—a journal published by Emerson College, as is Ploughshares—the central story slips out slowly in spite of the narrator’s clear desire to steer the narrative in different direction.
The initial focus of the story, introduced in the title and reinforced by the section titles (My Beard at the Game, My Beard at Work, etc.), is the narrator John Ruiz’s beard. It makes him feel like a “brand new man.” But beneath appearances, Braun sets up a subtext, which questions the simplicity of the narrator’s revelation and enjoyment of the new beard. What was wrong before that the beard fixed? What problems did it solve? Simple fashion choices don’t carry much weight on their own; to give the beard so much focus implies that there’s more below the surface.
Braun supplies some hints in the third section, when Galen—the narrator’s boss at a washer factory—begins prodding John about his previously unmentioned father.
Don’t take this the wrong way, Galen says, but some people are wondering… well, maybe you should get some rest.
I’m not tired.
I mean take some time off. Visit your dad in the hospital. Have you seen him since he fell?
Before the beard, I would have done what Galen said. I would have gone home to my apartment, and I would have visited Dad. Waited for “some people” to tell me what to do. What they think is best for me.
117th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment (Hawaii) Photo by Staff Sgt. Brendan Mackie
“All a poet can do today is warn,” Wilfred Owen wrote during World War I. If one view of poetry holds it up as something filled with beauty or romance, the truth is that poetry found its first place more in images of violence and war
—think of The Odyssey
, The Epic of Gilgamesh
. In the last 100 years alone, poetry has been shaped and changed by war: from the WWI poets, such as Owen, to the more recent poems coming out (and that will surely be coming out more and more as these events are processed) about current wars. But, what about the idea of poetry as warning? Do the poems of World War I reflect on today’s wars? Are they still as applicable to us?
To examine this, I’ll bring up an example from my own experience. I teach composition and communication at the college level and when I first introduce textual rhetorical analysis, I usually do it by first broaching literary analysis (which is often something students are more familiar with rather than jumping straight into rhetoric). The way that I introduce it? By looking at Ivor Gurney’s poem “To His Love.”
Gurney, an astonishing poet, was traumatized by his time in WWI and spent the end of his life institutionalized. “To His Love” is arguably one of his finest works, and one that most clearly shows the trauma of his experience. The poem begins slowly, simply, it’s tightly rhymed structure making it seem like the most traditional of elegies:
and all our plans are useless indeed.
We’ll walk no more on Cotswold
where the sheep feed.
Saretta Morgan participates in “text-based writing,” and currently attends the interdisciplinary graduate writing program at Pratt Institute. Additionally, she’s a member of the Belladonna* Collective, a feminist avant-garde group founded in New York City. These affiliations begin to orient lenses and traditions through which to read her work; but “begin” is the operative word here, as I believe Saretta Morgan’s work doesn’t simply continue any one mode of writing, but works to permutate the orderings, genres, and possibilities for how text can function. In the past two years, I’ve been following her work, both critical and creative, as it’s published online, and am pleased today to link to one of her recent works through the Ploughshares blog.
Saretta Morgan’s newest untitled piece, recently published by TAGVVERK, records seven days in late 2015-early 2016 on eight closed “window shades” that serve as tablets. The text—simultaneously diary, day-keeper, “(A performance for intimate space with strangers),” catalogue, poem—looms forward by providing a series of peaks: its entirety features a few phrases or sentences per “slide,” and a black background becomes foregrounded by making up the majority of the space. Flipping Zora Neale Hurston’s “I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background” by charging the typically all-white page with black backdrops and white text, Saretta Morgan also invokes Hortense Spillers’s piece “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book” to think through black womanhood, black feminism, and black motherhood. Morgan finishes this “performance for intimate space with strangers” with the claim: “This is a stage populated by white people throwing shit around if I say so.” Therefore, the page becomes a stage, in its representation and its critique: Morgan’s piece confronts personal and public articulations of blackness and daily entries of facts translated into theories and back again, as fragments of living.