Gilead is a Pulitzer-prize winning novel from Marilynne Robinson. A meditation on morality, faith and trust, it’s a gripping and powerful read, a book with a voice that will stay with you. And yet, it is reflective and moves at deliberate pace. The book drew me in – as it has for many others.
Gilead is a first-person novel, told from the perspective of a aged dying pastor with a heart condition. He’s writing for his young son and as a way to come to grips with his family, its history, and the tensions that exist in the fictional small Iowa town called Gilead. That, by the way, is also the name of a place of testimony in the Bible. There’s nothing in this book that isn’t carefully thought through by Robinson. There’s great care in the narrative and the drawing of the people who inhabit the town.
The character who tells the story, John Ames, is a good man who feels down to his bones. He is flawed and aware of his flaws. He questions but is no doubting Thomas. At the same time he offers wisdom, understanding, and ultimately, forgiveness, at the personal level and as a way to lead a life. The way that he tells his story is a testimonial, a sharing that extends well beyond the superficial. Ames is a profoundly wise person, not in any sense from omniscience, but rather from his fully formed humanity.
Racism and its lengthy and violent history are never far from the characters or their histories. The story is set in the 1950s and Ames’s narrative extends to his grandfather’s life. Lynching and anti-black violence scar the Midwest and characters contend frequently.
My inclinations do not regularly run to reflections on religion. Nonetheless, the way that Robinson uses Ames to frame issues of faith engaged me. This is not an abstract novel about theological ideas divorced from the day-to-day; it is a reflective novel about how ideas and values are might be lived. It is a powerful meditation on how to think about faith and what it can mean to the conception of a good and meaningful life. That’s not a question just for philosophers or novelists.
After I finished and started reading about Gilead I learned that it is one of President Barack Obama’s favorite books. That, in and of itself, is more than enough of a recommendation.
Comprehensive studies of cities are tricky things. The growth, evolution and development of a complex community can be shoe-horned into a neat narrative, but does that really capture the spirit of a place? Photos and well-wrought prose can emphasize one viewpoint, but so, too, can numbers and graphs. One trait that make cities so special is their elusiveness, their chameleon-like character that allows for multiple perspectives, each with worthy claims to truth. This is no abstract philosophical exercise. Head to a busy street corner at 8:00 am and start to pay attention. Write down what you see, what you think is going on, what it all means. Head to the opposite side of the corner at 11:00 pm and try the same exercise. Does one contain more truth? Or do we need both in order to appreciate the complicated chaos and choreography that is a city?
Questions of perspective and priority crowded my reading of Tom Weber’s Minneapolis: An Urban Biography. It’s an accessible narrative account of the city. Weber is a journalist and radio host. He knows his city and its stories. Weber’s a fan, no doubt, but he’s no starry-eyed idealist when it comes to the city. He’s penned a tough-minded book that highlights conflict, exclusion and a disturbing history of recurring racism. For all its progressive policies and practices, Minneapolis’s origins are grounded in deception of native Americans and their slaughter by whites. Slavery was no stranger before the Civil War, either. And as the city grew, in perpetual competition with St. Paul, Minneapolis was home to much conflict, exacerbated by nativism. Class and labor issues were also major problems. Through much of the twentieth century, conflict and exclusion persisted. This is well-established for many historians and not a particularly unique characteristic for many American cities. That said, it’s unusual that a popular history to appreciate the importance of conflict in shaping economic, political and social culture. It certainly did in Minneapolis. Weber did his homework.
The book is long on anecdotes, the kind of historical examples that give life to an area. Weber is a sports fan, too. He anchors the book in the exploits of Minnesota sports teams, which seem have played an outsize role in shaping city culture. It’s light, though, on maps and charts, the kind of harder-edged information that us urban nerds appreciate.
I can’t attest that I know Minneapolis well. I can affirm, however, that I’m in a much better position to learn it and its history after spending a few hours with Weber’s book. Even with its hardheadedness, the book makes a strong case for spending more time in Minneapolis.
Wildly successful in an extraordinary range of fields, Walter E. Massey is not like many other people. Or really anyone else. Massey is a physicist who moved from active research faculty into academic leadership, and then to much more. His accomplishments over a lengthy career include heading the Argonne National Laboratory, the National Science Foundation, and presidencies of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and Morehouse College. He received the Fermi award from the Chicago Historical Society and the Public Humanities award from Illinois Humanities, along with many other awards. Massey chaired the American Association for the Advancement of Science as well as the Association of Independent Colleges of Art and Design. He has influenced policy and practice in education, science and the arts – and amid this busy schedule, he currently chairs the board of trustees of the City Colleges of Chicago.
Deeply committed to racial and social justice, Massey has been a consistent and effective voice for equity. He’s advised black student groups, created programs to improve access and education for underrepresented students, and pushed for reforms and change.
In 2020, Massey wrote In the Eye of the Storm, an account of his leadership of the Bank of American board during the financial crisis. Yes, amid all the other activities, he chaired one of the nation’s largest banks. He is and has been on many other corporate boards, including McDonald’s, BP, Motorola, First National Bank of Chicago, and Amoco.
Eye of the Storm is a conversational, first-person account from Massey. We learn about him growing up, some of his professional activities, his wife, and a good deal about Bank of America board negotiations during the crisis. He talks about racism, what he’s seen and experienced, and how he’s fought it and tried to instill social justice. There’s a fascinating matter of fact quality to the prose. He’s open, notes the challenges, and gives us clear descriptions that are surprisingly non-dramatic. You would definitely want Massey on your island and leading your team. As much as anything else, this is an account of leadership. His clarity of description, confidence without arrogance, and observations are extremely impressive. The behind the scenes descriptions of all the decisions, the challenges, would be overwhelming to most of us. Yet Massey, even when describing stressful decisions, conveys a sense of calm, focus and direction.
And if that isn’t enough, he’s an avid tennis player.
Eye of the Storm is very good on what Massey has done and what it was like for him leading the Bank of America during the Great Recession. It’s accessible and interesting. However, it is when the reader reflects, realizing that Massey is navigating all of this with all his other massive accomplishments, that one has to go “How does he do all this?” Massey’s perspective, from inside the center of storm, is vital. To learn more, we need an external account to see the storm’s size and impact. That is probably a question for a biographer – and I’d be very interested in how a biographer might try to describe the impact and many accomplishments of Dr. Walter E. Massey.
Roxane Gay is a genius, a tremendous writer. She’s a feminist, a public intellectual, and has a narrative voice that resonates in your head. Read her and you hear her.
Gay’s book, Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body, is powerful account of Gay’s body and her relationship with her body. Gay is fat – she frames the book and her body through her weight. She gives us a clear sense of the problems, the challenges, the difficulties of being fat. Her tone is spot on, with candor, frustration and humor. The world is unkind to fat people. More often than not, we are judgmental, mean and inconsiderate to the fat.
As the book unfolds, Gay shares that she is a sexual assault victim. Her description of that trauma is haunting and enraging. It’s horrific and a deep betrayal. There are many connections between the trauma and her body, her life and her sense of self – but this is not clinical study. She knows that she gained weight to protect herself. The assault changed her relationship with her body, with food, and with desires. Gay opens up about herself, sharing her strengths and vulnerability. It is extraordinarily intimate writing. Gay knows that her bulk is both protection and a prison. There’s no resolution, no pat observations. This is not a book about weight loss. It is about Gay and her body, and a voice that shares what it is like to be Roxane Gay.
We will be reading and re-reading Hunger for decades. It’s very accessible writing, an almost deceptively straightforward first-person account. But it is also painful and uncomfortable to read at times. Reflect and it opens up many threads. The book’s engagement enables great empathy, at a personal and societal level, calling into question judgements and assumptions. It hammers home the complexity of trauma, the layers upon layers of intertwined history, identity and response. It resonates philosophically, not only with mind-body duality, but also through basic questions of epistemology. What do we know, who do we know – and do we know ourselves?
As readers we may not really know Roxane Gay. We know what we read, and with that, its limitations. What I do know – after reading Hunger I have tremendous respect and admiration for her. And I want to read more of her work.
Host of The Daily Show, Trevor Noah is a South African comedian, writer, producer and entertainer who has achieved well-deserved international success. Wickedly funny, he is an extraordinary person with an extraordinary personal story. Born under apartheid to a Black Xhosa mother and a white Swiss father, Noah was, literally, Born a Crime. That is the name of the memoir of his childhood and a powerful reminder of the South African laws at the time, which prohibited people of different races from having children. Noah’s book is accessible, funny in just the way you would think a talented comedian might write, and also a chilling account how corrosively evil life in apartheid might be. Like a dark satire that brings laughter and discomfort, Born a Crime is not humorous at all when you consider its larger themes.
The hero of Noah’s childhood is his mother, Patricia Nombuyiselo. Born to a very large family in dire poverty, she escaped to craft a new life and to make sure that her son would not suffer the “tax of Blackness.” She navigated legal and state oppression to find work and opportunities. She chose to have a child, knowing that she could never be see n in public as a couple with the boy’s father. Sustaining her throughout was religion. She’s a person of deep and pervasive faith. Noah’s recounts of the various churches and his mom’s faith is humorous, touching and understandably overwhelming. What the woman was able to accomplish is a testament to her faith and strength. Noah gets this and is very much aware of his great debt to her.
Amid the friendships, the trouble-making, the attempts at girlfriends, the trips to church and to see his father, surreptitiously, all of which are told in good humor, Noah guides us through the many traps, barriers and challenges of a childhood in South African apartheid. He shows us how people followed and broke rules, and how the system worked its way into all aspects of life. It is important to remember that this is not ancient history. Noah was born in 1984. Nelson Mandela did not get out of prison until 1990. Multi-racial voting in South Africa did not happen until 1994. So many suffered and died because of apartheid and its legacy. Noah, though, is not interested in writing a public history. That said, he is very smart and he draws clear lines of connection and consequence for us as he tells stories and describes people and situations. Awful things often cause long-lasting harm. Many in Noah’s orbit suffered, but this is not a book about suffering. It’s about an amazing childhood filled with interesting people.
Noah describes his difficulty fitting in as a child, how is otherness led him to become more of a chameleon. This makes sense, particularly with the sharp divisions in his home country. That otherness, though, has also given Noah a powerful skill to see what many might miss or overlook. After I read the book I learned that it is being made into a film. It is easy to see why. There is much in the story that is recognizable and familiar to an American audience. And yet, there is also much that is different – a different country, different languages and histories – that can give us a different perspective on ourselves. Noah’s skill at doing this, with great humor, is a special gift.
Hurricane Maria caused tremendous destruction in Puerto Rica in 2017, killing thousands and wiping out much of the island’s infrastructure. It was a disaster in the true sense of the term. A few days after the storm subsided, Jose Andres, an internationally renowned chef who had a restaurant in Puerto Rico (among several others), decided that he was going to make an effort to help. He recounts his efforts, filled with successes, failures and challenges, in We Fed an Island: The True Story of Rebuilding Puerto Rico, One Meal at a Time. It’s a cheering, frustrating, and interesting read – and not for the reasons that I expected. I did not know what a relief efforts was like for the key volunteer organizations. While I imagined confusion and difficulties, Andres’s book offers a more complete level of understanding – and highlights the consequences of poor leadership. The people of Puerto Rico were not adequately supported after Maria.
Andres is a chef, writer, television personality, and humanitarian – a man of influence and ability. In 2010 following a crisis in Haiti, he created a non-profit, World Central Kitchen (WCK), to feed people after disasters. He’s received numerous awards and by every standard, is wildly successful. As you might imagine from such a profile, he is also comfortable expressing himself. He is not a scholar; he is focused on outcomes. We Fed an Island captures all of this: incredible generosity, a tremendous ability to get things done, great smarts and a perspective that is about goal setting and achievement. It is a first-person account through and through. If you are looking for a more comprehensive study of the disaster, this is not the study. And while this book would have been stronger with more structure and data, that was not the aim. I have nothing but respect for Andres and gratitude for his work and the book. Proceeds from the book go to WCK, too.
For people to survive and rebuild after a hurricane, many things have to happen, from health care to water to power to shelter. Andres arrived and focused on one of the most basic needs: getting people enough food to get by. He drew on his experience with WCK and other relief efforts, as well as deep connections to many on the island, from former co-workers to elected officials to media personalities. Andres’ team quickly established kitchens and then, fighting a host of indifferent or ineffective bureaucracies along the way, greatly expanded its reach. It took time, but eventually other organizations stepped up as well. All though Andres’ was not the only group providing food, it is not far off from asserting that they truly did “feed an island”
The book is peppered with wisdom about relief efforts, problem solving of all shapes and sizes, and how restaurants work. “When you cook at scale, you become expert at processes” Andres tells us – and much of the book is all about process thinking. It’s also about how knowing your customer and community, which can make all the difference. Reading about the many different kinds of sancocho Andres’ team prepared was cheering and also made me hungry. Good Puerto Rican food is very, very good and a good sancocho is fantastic. Andres cares a great deal about the food, its impact, and even explains how customers can become volunteers. The big picture realization is the many ways that thoughtful and caring relief work can bind a community.
Much of the book, though, is about the challenges. Above and beyond the difficulties that Puerto Ricans faced, Andres and his team faced many, most visible of whom was President Trump and other elected and appointed officials. Andres does not hold back his criticisms. Particularly galling, but not surprising, are the recurring gaps between what was happening and what was reported. There was a massive lack of coordinated leadership in the relief work, regardless of what was reported.
Through a different lens, We Fed an Island is a call for reform. It is essential. We need to rethink our disaster relief organization and processes. Without that, the next crisis could be worse. Andres is worthy of our thanks – for his work, his food, and his willingness to share.
Cycling through Chicago neighborhoods, walking in this fascinating city, I often wonder about its development. Who built what and why? How did we end up with our city of neighborhoods, our parks, our nodes of this and that? The architecture, the public and private spaces of this city, are extraordinarily interesting. Add to that the city’s rich, vibrant and often troubling history and even more questions arise. Why are we so segregated? Why are some parts of the city so wealthy and others so much less so? It doesn’t seem to have much to do with geography. There’s no elevated part of the city that overlooks the rest. Chicago is a flat metropolis and public transportation, while important, does not offer a guarantee of an improved infrastructure or a healthier neighborhood.
Are there two inexorable neighborhood trends in the city: gentrification with exclusion or under investment with poverty?
Recently I read a short volume that helps to answer these questions, at least in one Chicago neighborhood. Daniel Kay Hertz’s The Battle of Lincoln Park: Urban Renewal and Gentrification in Chicago is an accessible study that could be considered local history. Read it carefully, though, and it offers more. It is a case study, a window into how politics, racism, and economics intertwine in the creation of our built environment. Hertz is a Chicago native who knows his way around the city’s economy and politics. He’s a reliable guide in this book, which unpacks and questions the dynamics of gentrification. It is well-written, thoughtfully considered and chock full of smart analysis. My greatest complaint is that it is light on maps. They would have given the book even more punch.
Lincoln Park is a community on the north side of Chicago, bordering Lake Michigan. In the years after World War II, it was a dynamic neighborhood filled with a diversity of backgrounds, incomes, races and economic activity. Though certainly not edenic and clearly suffering from the long-term effects of the Great Depression, Lincoln Park had much going for it. It appealed to artists and other creative types after the war. Knowingly or not, deep changes were coming. It is from these first influx of post-war residents that Hertz starts his story. He follows them, and the shifts in the neighborhood, for the coming decades. There’s increased movement by white middle class people, a push for urban renewal and slum-clearance, which disrupts neighborhoods, and the organization of community groups who preach inclusivity while promoting practices that drive less affluent community members out. All of this happens in phases, usually connected to broader economic trends. By the 1960s, the neighborhood has greatly stressed, particularly as a vibrant and politically active Puerto Rican community was displaced. Those changes led to violence and riots.
Architecturally, multiple-family dwellings are replaced by single family homes. This brings in new types of families and excludes those with lesser means. The population dips as wealth ticks up. Federal dollars speed up the rate of transformation. A few large developments shape the community further, each of which involve “clearance”, or removing buildings of less property value, under the flag of “improving the community.” These are highly contested politically charged affairs. Hertz stresses, though, that the underlying transformation is steady and ongoing, with or without the big projects proceeding. From 1945 to 1970, the span of this book, Lincoln Park is the site of significant and long-lasting change. It has continued, too, as have changes and gentrification in many other parts of the city.
Hertz does a good job presenting different perspectives from the neighborhood. He’s very interested in giving voice to those that were not able to exercise much political power. Gentrification can cause real pain and harm. It can also bring benefits to an under-resourced area. Ultimately, Hertz is less concerned about policy and more in telling a story of the built environment. Hertz pays close attention to who did what and why during those years. It begs the question of economic gain and problematizes the idea of a “nice” neighborhood. That is a loaded issue, particularly when one considers who is determining it and why. There is much more to community than property values. Or large single-family houses. Reading his book and walking Lincoln Park, it is much easier to understand the neighborhood and, importantly, to think about how other neighborhoods have and are changing. It calls into question what people think of as community and why. That is a very important question, one we need to continue to address if we are to have a healthy city.
The story of Chicago’s The Defender, perhaps America’s preeminent Black newspaper of the 20th century, is the history of race and racism in the city and the nation. It’s been an extraordinarily important publication, an essential voice for Black community and a tireless advocate for racial justice and agency, for over a century. Ethan Michaeli’s hefty book, The Defender: How The Legendary Black Newspaper Changed America, is a sprawling account of the newspaper, strong on personalities and affection. It is tome at 633 pages, yet is still leaves at least this reader with questions. More than a history of a business, Micheali’s volume shines a provocative light on the intersection of The Defender, those that made it, the stories that it told, and the communities in which it was read.
The Defender was the brain child of Robert Abbott, a fascinating Black entrepreneur from Georgia who visited Chicago’s 1893 World Colombian Exposition as a young man. Among his many skills, he was a talented singer and a member of the Hampton Quartet. Abbott, impressed with the city’s Black professionals and keen on the opportunities he saw in the growing metropolis, decided to move to Chicago and become a lawyer. Plans changed as Abbott’s law career did not take off as expected. Knowing a bit about printing from a relative, Abbott judged that the city’s growing Black community needed a newspaper. Borrowing money and leaning on friends and acquaintances, he started The Defender in 1905 with an initial print run of 300. His offices were in his landlady’s dining room. The paper, with a mission as a defender of Abbott’s race, was truly a visionary enterprise. From those small steps, Abbott’s drive, brilliance and amazing work built the organization and a paper with international impact.
Initially read on the South Side of Chicago, The Defender was passed from reader to reader. Importantly, the newspaper was picked up by Pullman porters, many of whom lived or traveled through Chicago, increasing its scope. Over time, Abbott attracted a cadre outstanding journalists and writers, like Ida B. Wells and Langston Hughes. The paper was tireless in its attention to racism, opportunity and justice. It was relentless in its descriptions and criticisms of lynchings and other injustices, especially in the South. The paper investigated and reported factually racist atrocities and lynchings, in direct contrast to what white publications printed. Abbott and members of the papers were harassed and threatened, but they pressed on, unfazed. The paper’s work accelerated the political and cultural organizations of within Black Chicago, and was an extraordinarily important factor in the Great Migration. Abbott and the paper initiated the Bud Billiken parade in 1929, a celebration that has grown to being the nation’s largest African-American parade. It is a wonderful August event, and Michaeli cleverly draws the reader into his work by opening with a young Barack Obama at the event.
John H. Sengstacke, Abbott’s nephew, took over the paper in 1940 followings Abbott’s death. The Defender played a key role in politics and race issues at the city, state and national level through World War II, pushing hard for civil rights and the integration of the military. Facing strong competition from other Black newspaper by this time, Defender journalists and editors were prominent and active. That key scope extended through the 1950s and the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s and beyond. Political and cultural leaders needed the newspaper’s attention, especially as more Blacks voted and acquired wealth and influence. It is difficult to overstate the key role that The Defender served in keeping Black communities informed and engaged.
Michaeli’s book describes all of this very well. He’s a talented writer with a good eye for detail. Consistently using the paper as a primary source, he has rich material to engage the reader. And as The Defender was active across the continent for decades, there’s more than enough history to reference and recount. Michaeli’s attention to the violence and prejudice that The Defender covered very strong. He appreciates, as did the newspaper’s staff and readership, the harsh realities of Black Americans. He underscores, too, that racial justice was only achieved through suffering and struggle. The book offers a powerful reminder of just how constant racial bigotry and violence were a prominent throughout the twentieth century.
On the other hand, the lengthy book could have been more effective with greater attention to context and history. Michaeli does reference some of the important historical scholarship that helps to explain the big picture, but I did not come away with the sense that he was comfortable crafting his history in that realm. I understand that this would have changed the book. Nonetheless, for those not familiar with twentieth century American history, or the history of Chicago, The Defender moves quickly and makes assumptions. Some of this is simply how the author approached the material. Michaeli, a white University of Chicago English major, took a job as a copy editor at the Defender a year after graduation in 1991. He stayed at the paper for five years, working his way up to journalist, and learning about Chicago, racism, and American history along the way. Five hundred pages into the book – its structure is chronological – Michaeli introduces himself, writes about his ignorance of race and history, and explains his journey to understanding through his job and the work of the newspaper. As he notes, the experience “filled in so many blanks in American history left by the textbooks of my youth and showed me how things really work.”
At the start of the 1900s, America had more than 20,000 newspapers. Many of these publications represented communities ignored by mainstream presses. Their function was much more than reporting the news. These newspapers were critical in the development of group identity and political mobilization, particularly as the country wrestled with issues of suffrage, political participation, and the meaning of being an American. Now read mostly by graduate students, the vast majority of these papers have long been assigned to archives, their readership and influence waning over the decades. The Defender had a much greater impact than most and has lasted longer than most. It still exists online and still has an important voice. Michaeli’s book goes far in telling that story.
Fate is the Hunter: A Pilot’s Memoir is considered by many (count playwright David Mamet on the list) as one of the best books ever written about aviation. Penned by Ernest K. Gann and published in 1964, it remains in print today. It’s an extraordinarily engrossing read. And as wonderful a book as it is, learning about Gann is just as exciting. First, though, a bit about this moving book.
Fate is the Hunter is an interconnected series of stories, reflections and observations by Gann about his life as a pilot. He started flying airplanes professionally in the years before World War II, learning his skills in a nascent industry, filled with larger than life characters and ever present danger. He shares virtually nothing of his life not as a pilot. The memoir is devoid of romance, family and pursuits outside of aviation. But he writes so well, he tells such good stories, that it is only after finishing that you might wonder why he didn’t tell us more. On the page, Gann is a man obsessed, focused and driven, by flight. And what a rich series of experiences he has, from those early days to his time in the war to life as a pilot in peacetime. He flew in the United States, South America, Europe and Asia – literally all over the world. He battle with weather, with technology, with all manner of challenges, and he considers himself extremely fortunate to have survived. The book’s title tells all – these early pilots tempted fate. Sections of the memoir were turned into a film with the same name.
Gann the person is worthy of biography on his own. Born in Nebraska in 1910, Gann was brilliant, curious and restless. His parents had money and tried to give him discipline by sending him to a military high school. It’s hard to see that it had a significant effect; Gann consistently pushed himself and the envelope, never really settling down. After graduation, he did a couple of years at Yale, but left to try his hand on Broadway, working both behind the scenes and doing some acting. Shuttling between New York and Chicago, Gann married and became a projectionist at Radio City Music Hall – as well as a cartoonist and filmmaker. The couple moved to upstate New York – Rockland County, nearby a local airport – where Gann became ever more committed to flying, first as an avocation and then as a career. With limited employment opportunities, he relocated his family to Hollywood, where he looked for work and gave flying lessons and charters on the side. He moved the family back to New York after an altercation on a job. Gann vowed to leave show business for aviation.
Starting in 1938 as a First Officer for American Airlines, Gann began his career as a pilot. Like many in the domestic aviation industry, he became part of the military in WWII, volunteering to do his part. He flew in the North Atlantic, then in South America, and then across “The Hump” in the Himalayas. After the war, Gann returned to passenger flight piloting, relocating his family in San Francisco. He also started a commercial fishing venture that did not make money. Gann had a longstanding love of boating, too. Through it all, he was writing.
Gann’s first novel was written in 1944 and it was remade into a movie a few years later. He would write twenty more novels, plus several memoirs. Many of these works became movies or screenplays. Gann’s storytelling expertise, coupled with his extraordinarily interesting life, came together in the creative process. He found financial success and made quite a mark, especially in aviation. He passed away in 1991. Gann’s “writing shed” is now at the Experimental Aviation Association’s museum in Oshkosh, Wisconsin.
I enthusiastically recommend Fate is the Hunter: A Pilot’s Memoir – it’s a gem of a book. And I’ll keep you posted, too; I’m going to explore more of Gann’s writing. If it’s anything like the memoir, there’s a lot more good Gann to be read.
Students of American literature of the late 19th century cover a well-known cadre of writers. Henry James, Mark Twain, Stephen Crane, William Dean Howells, Kate Chopin, Edith Wharton, Louisa May Alcott and Harriet Beecher Stowe stand out as fine examples. Decades ago when I was an English major, I learned about these authors and the broader literary trends of the period. Many of the popular works of the Gilded Age are marked by writerly care and precise language. There’s quite a bit of really good literature to read.
These authors, though, are not the only ones worthy of our consideration. America was fortunate to have many accomplished voices in the late 1800s, voices that we would be well-served to remember. Anne Boyd Rioux, a professor of English at the University of New Orleans, has brought her considerable skills to elevate one of those authors, Constance Fenimore Woolson. In addition to penning a biography of Woolson, Rioux edited an interesting selection of Woolson’s shorter works, Miss Grief and Other Stories. With a foreword by Colm Toibin and light framing by Rioux, this is an accessible and thoughtful introduction to Woolson.
Born in 1840, Woolson lived in the Midwest, traveled through the south and New England before spending her final years in Europe. She died in 1893, either jumping or falling to her death in Venice. Smart, focused on her career and prolific, she wrote novels, short stories, poetry and even a children’s book. Her efforts appeared regularly in popular publications like The Atlantic Monthly and Harper’s Magazine. Never married and deaf in her later years, Woolson comes across in the biographical material as a talented but isolated creative force. She was friends with Henry James. Their relationship has been the focus of several studies.
Woolson’s writing is of the period. It reflects her context, her perspective, and her acute powers of observation. It cannot be hurried if one is to appreciate it. There’s a deliberate attention to detail Woolson’s prose, particularly when she focuses on what might be marginalized figures or circumstances in the hands of other authors. She is also quite attentive to place, the particular language of a region, the topography, flora and fauna. It does not diminish her writing and instead gives a realistic foundation. Sitting down with Woolson is to immerse oneself into another world, recognizable but still distinct.
It remains to be seen if future English majors will study Woolson. Whether they do or do not, her work serves as a welcome alternative to the well-known. And a deep thanks to Anne Boyd Rioux, too, for calling her out and getting her republished.