Content Tagged ‘Ernest Hemingway’

A special sentence structure

July 17, 2017 | 11 Comments

A moral master of prose style

April 25, 2017 | 12 Comments

I’m always circling back to James Baldwin. My latest return, reading The Devil Finds Work, his essays on American cinema, was spurred by watching the recent documentary about him, I Am Not Your Negro. I found the film, as a work of history, of racial reconsideration, of brilliantly structured art, quite literally stunning. Based loosely on Baldwin’s unrealized plan to write a book about three slain friends—civil rights leaders Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King Jr.—the documentary was nominated for an Oscar. It opened nationwide on February 3, and I saw it shortly afterward in a screening at Ohio State. I’ve been trying since then to watch it again. The film’s power derives, in large part, from its periodic juxtaposition of images of American racists of another era with those who’ve gaped and japed at recent rallies.

Such a stinky revelation of human insufficiency. Hence the timeliness of Baldwin’s urgent message that race is America’s story. Race is where our nation’s transcendent ideals meet the angels and demons of human nature. Is America only an accident of its riches or is it an avatar of the expanding human spirit?

Baldwin sank his teeth in such foundational issues. Which is partly what makes him one of America’s greatest writers. He loved America and its culture, but was an outsider—made doubly so by his race and his homosexuality—and he wrote in fierce, profound clarity and despair. The Devil Finds Work shows you what it’s like for such a man to consider movies he loves and ones he hates. It’s a racial and social deconstruction of American cinema.

Writing of the “mindless and hysterical banality” of the evil in The Exorcist, Baldwin reveals his own feeling of insufficiency before the “heavy, tattered glory of the gift of God.” Any human’s freedom carries the almost unbearable burden of honestly confronting one’s failure to be fully human: “To encounter oneself is to encounter the other: and this is love. If I know that my soul trembles, I know that yours does, too: and if I can respect this, both of us can live.”

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Sentence, substance & comma joy

February 24, 2016 | 7 Comments

Thankfully teaching impels me to reread and study great literature. I’ve just reread, for a class I’m teaching, “Notes of a Native Son,” America’s greatest essay—greatest because its content deals with our nation’s great topic, race, and because of its artistry—and I’ve seen something new in James Baldwin’s famous prose style.

Of course his sentences work within a framed structure, opening with his father’s funeral and returning to it to close, and the essay is classically broken into three acts as well. Then there’s Baldwin’s thundering Old Testament condemnation of racism. He shows and explains his own bewildering, maddening experiences with discrimination in the 1950s. And he sees at last how the racism of America’s long apartheid era warped his father. But Baldwin, then 19, has returned too late to his father’s deathbed for them to talk, let alone to discuss how to live with this burden of bitterness.

The essay’s rounded sentences, gravid with clauses and commas, convey a deep and subtle mind groping toward personal and universal truths. Baldwin’s prose itself ruminates. He can be as halting as Henry James. At the same time, conversely, he speeds up his orotund sentences. The combination of lingering and racing ahead creates an interesting rhythm, which is part of the essay’s powerful effect. In both content and style, “Notes of a Native Son” is at once chewy and flowing.

This time through, I saw clearer why that is. Many of the commas that truncate the essay’s sentences are unnecessary, strictly speaking, but lend the essay its thoughtful air. Yet Baldwin usually omits commas at a key juncture. He consistently breaks the rule-of-thumb that commas should assist conjunctions when joining independent clauses.

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Making old stories new

February 10, 2016 | 9 Comments

Like everyone, I’m trying to distill meaning from the deluge of our presidential campaign season. What stories about themselves—and America—are candidates selling? How will the competing truths of those left standing square with mine? What vision will voters pick for the title of Overarching Narrative?

My reflexive analysis occurs while I’m completing an essay about how memory, imagination, and story intertwine. The surprising byproduct of my work has been a radical rethinking of some of my long-unexamined inner narratives. This has been positive personally, and powerful for my essay. Meanwhile, as events, stories, and spin erupt on the national stage, I can only hope our republic’s story emerges from its test similarly affirmed.

Politically, I sway between brilliant writers’ truths. For a day, I fell under the spell of Charles M. Blow’s deft essay in the New York Times, “White America’s ‘Broken Heart.’” Blow lauds Bill Clinton’s “clear rhetorical framing” of the current narrative as being about white America’s anxiety in sharing a new demographic future. Then I leapt to an even more subtle accounting, R.R. Reno’s New York Times essay “How Both Parties Lost the White Middle Class.” Reno calls the racial theory a “huge distraction” from the real issue: those flourishing in the global economy and those foundering.

Then there are simply hateful candidates, such as Donald Trump and Ted Cruz with their rage, egotism, and guile. How mistaken their notions of human history and human nature; how meager their own ideas. In colonial times, invitations to meet with pistols at twenty paces greeted less annoying fools

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A seer of art

August 13, 2015 | 8 Comments

Almost everyone consumes art in some form—it’s hard not to. Which means almost everyone has an opinion. Then there’s Sister Wendy. A nun who spends her days in silent, ego-less contemplation and prayer, the former English major emerges to take in the occasional art gallery. She has a gift, it turns out, for seeing deeply into paintings and their painters.

In the YouTube clip with this post, Wendy discusses “Stanley Spencer, Self portrait with Patricia Preece,” 1936. She comments that the woman’s hair is “unconvincing” though her pubic hair is “lovely and fluffy.” So the novelty effect here is high, but Wendy is no joke. She focuses on how “his art understands—he doesn’t understand,” and she leaves “Feeling vaguely unsatisfied, though I’m not sure why I should be.”

Wendy intuits and appreciates the artist’s effort. At the same time, she is so sensitive that she senses and analyzes where he may have in some way failed. She is positive even in this. What she is saying is Art is a handmade thing and never perfect. I think we love any work of art for its perfection but also for its heightened quality, its attempt at perfection. Art is handmade and there will be flaws. Perhaps the critic must help her audience see places that might be uneven, especially if they’re either a fault of soul or the dark side of a virtue.

I love sister Wendy, a seer of art. She shows how creative criticism can be. Her ability to receive and to feel is amazing and inspiring.

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Poetry of Light in August

June 22, 2015 | 8 Comments

William Faulkner began as a poet, and it shows. He adores words. His sentences shine as well in Light in August, sometimes referred to as his greatest novel. Sometimes it’s also called his most accessible great one, the last bead on his string of masterpieces between 1929 and 1932: Sartoris, The Sound and the Fury, As I Lay Dying, Sanctuary. I remember Light in August fondly from college. I wrote mostly poetry then, and realized only recently that I had based a character, in an epic poem I was slaving over on nights, after the novel’s immortal Lena Grove.

Rereading it this summer, I’m struck by how sure a writer Faulkner was. His sentences thrill and inspire. Then again, there are enough of those Faulkneresque doozies to keep you on your toes. The story is simple. Lena Grove, a poor and naïve, very pregnant but indomitable, a girl from nowhere Alabama, tracks her feckless beau to Mississippi. He works as a sawdust shoveler at a sawmill with a fellow named Joe Christmas, a bootlegger, soon-to-be murderer, and all-around tortured soul. Suffice it to say, troubles ensue.

Some of Faulkner’s sentences are seemingly based on his observations, others seemingly arise from his immersion in his fictive story.

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My blog turns six today!

July 17, 2014 | 14 Comments

After my previous post, about quirky personal posts I recall fondly, my blogger friend Shirley Showalter asked me to discuss the benefits and difficulties of blogging in my life. In the past year I’ve struggled for the first time to post—the long energy-producing effort of drafting my memoir over. Plus having to face the What’s next? question. For most people, probably me too, blogging is a phase. For all I know, this is my last post.

So that’s the difficulty part. But the blog has helped me as a writer—kept my prose and my persona down to earth, underscored obsessions, given instant gratification. It has forced me to create something on the fly that turned out to please me and has inspired me to laboriously craft a post that has likewise surprised me. Sometimes I’ve thought, I should have done that for a real publication. But the truth is, without an existing affiliation, like this blog, I wouldn’t have.

The blog made me do it. Paul Thorne, the Mississippi blues-soul-rock musician says it best: “Whatever expression you have in you, instead of thinking about it all the time, do it. Make it tangible, you know? That’s what art is, it’s creativity made tangible.”

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