12 Winters Blog

Preface to ‘The Artist Spoke’

Posted in Uncategorized, October 2020 by Ted Morrissey on October 27, 2020

Like all novels, The Artist Spoke is about many things — some that I, as the author, am privy to, and some, as the author, I am not. One of the things it’s about (I know) is what it means to be a writer when the book, as an art form, is gasping its final breaths. Why labor over a novel, a story, a poem, an essay when you’re certain almost no one is going to read it?

It’s a question I’ve been contemplating, on various levels, for a number of years — as a writer certainly, but also as a publisher, a teacher, a librarian, and a reader. I have found solace in the words of my literary idol William H. Gass: “Whatever work [the contemporary American writer] does must proceed from a reckless inner need. The world does not beckon, nor does it greatly reward. . . . Serious writing must nowadays be written for the sake of the art.”

Gass shows up, explicitly, a couple of times in The Artist Spoke. I use most of the above quote as an epigraph for Part II of the novel, “Americana.” Then later, the two main characters, Chris Krafft and Beth Winterberry, visit a bookstore where they briefly discuss Gass’s iconic essay collection Fiction and the Figures of Life and specifically its concluding piece “The Artist and Society.” I read the essay often, as a reminder — a kind of mantra — that what I do, answering the call of the “reckless inner need,” is not only worthwhile but important.

Quoting the Master again: “[The world] does not want its artists, after all. It especially does not want the virtues which artists must employ in the act of their work lifted out of prose and paint and plaster into life.” Gass goes on to discuss these virtues, which include honesty, presence, unity, awareness, sensuality, and totality (that is, “an accurate and profound assessment of the proportion and value of things”).

Gass concludes the essay, written toward the end of the 1960s (the Vietnam era), by saying that “the artist is an enemy of the state [. . . but also] an enemy of every ordinary revolution [. . . because] he undermines everything.” That is, to be true to their art, artists must be ready to stand alone. As soon as they lend their voice to a cause, their art becomes something else, like propaganda, jingoism, a corporate slogan.

The Artist Spoke is a departure for me in several ways. For one, it has a contemporary setting. When I began writing the novel, in late 2015 or early 2016, I even intended for it to have a somewhat futuristic setting — but when it takes five years to write a novel nowadays, the future quickly becomes the now, if not the past. My other novels and novellas have been set in the past: Men of Winter (early twentieth century, First World War-ish), Figures in Blue (also early twentieth century), Weeping with an Ancient God (July 1842), An Untimely Frost (1830s), Crowsong for the Stricken (1950s, mainly), and Mrs Saville (1816 or 17).

I prefer writing in a past setting. My current project is set in 1907 (the first three episodes are going to be published by Wordrunner as an e-novella or abbreviated collection, First Kings and Other Stories). I like the definitiveness of the past, and I enjoy reading history — so doing research is one of the most pleasurable parts of the writing process. What rifle would the hunter have been using? When did electricity come to that part of the country? How were corpses embalmed?

Though a devout atheist, I’m fascinated with the Bible, as a narrative and as a cultural artifact, so I often incorporate biblical elements into my fiction. I did this to some degree in Crowsong for the Stricken, but in the current project all the stories (episodes?) are rooted in Bible stories and biblical imagery, which is reflected in their titles: “First Kings,” “Hosea,” “The Widow’s Son,” and (the newest) “The Buzite.”

Religious faith is explored in The Artist Spoke as well. For instance, the novel asks, is faith in literature — or devotion to a particular author — not a kind of religion, and one that could be more meaningful than a traditional religion? A faith’s liturgy, after all, is at the core of its beliefs (in theory). Are not Joyceans, then, a kind of congregation? People who consider life’s meaning through the lenses of Ulysses or Finnegans Wake or another Joyce text, like “The Dead”?

For me, though a fan and admirer of Joyce, my religion is rooted in the writings of William H. Gass. They help me to understand the world and to sort through my own opinions and feelings regarding what the world offers up to me, like a pandemic, like a country where many of its citizens refuse to take precautions against spreading the virus, believing it to be some sort of hoax or conspiracy. Gass said, “One of the themes of my work is that people certainly do not want to know the truth, and they construct all sorts of idiocies to avoid facing it.” Amen.

Reading Gass helps me to cope with what is going on in the country right now. I would want that sort of solace for anyone, for everyone — but one needs to read literature and read it well and read it often. And those days are quickly coming to an end.

Another way that The Artist Spoke is a departure for me is that I feel I have stepped from behind a curtain to acknowledge that the book is all me: I wrote it, I took the photoraphs, I designed the book, I designed the cover, I edited it. I have done everything. I have been slowly inching my way into full view. With my last book, Mrs Saville, I was essentially out but was perhaps not quite as vocal about it.

Self-publishing is still seen by many as “vanity publishing.” In other artistic fields, taking charge of your own art is viewed as rebellious and bold: musicians who create their own labels, fashion designers who found their own boutiques, visual artists who start their own galleries, etc. The simple truth is that commercial publishing houses are not interested in what I’m doing in my writing, thus literary agents aren’t either. Nevertheless, I still feel that “reckless inner need”; and, what is more, I enjoy the entire process. I love writing the stories and novels, and I enjoy designing the books and illustrating them.

By taking control of the whole process, I can shape the book into a unified artistic expression. The design can complement the words. I’ve had run-ins over the years with editors, and I’ve been disappointed by the efforts of graphic designers who didn’t seem to get my work (perhaps they didn’t read it, or comprehend it).

That said, I do have an ego, so I seek publication for pieces of my books as I work on them (perhaps I am more sensitive to the charge of vanity publishing than I like to let on). Most of The Artist Spoke appeared in print, here and there, prior to the novel’s full publication, in Floyd County Moonshine, Lakeview Journal, Adelaide Magazine, Central American Literary Review, and Litbreak Magazine. I say in the Acknowledgments, “I wrote this book in fits and starts, often losing my way, at one point abandoning it for nearly two years. The editors who saw something of value in the work and published pieces of it over time provided more encouragement than they can know.”

My ego also hopes at least a few people read and enjoy The Artist Spoke, but I didn’t write it for a mass audience. Ultimately, I suppose, I wrote it for an audience of one. In any case, I give it to the world, to take or to leave. Gass-speed, little book.

An Open Letter to the 30%

Posted in Uncategorized by Ted Morrissey on October 17, 2020

As a schoolteacher my number-one priority is my students’ safety. An English and speech teacher, I’m charged with improving their reading, writing, speaking, listening and thinking skills, but, by mandate, curricular objectives are secondary to assuring my students’ physical and emotional well-being. To that end, I appeal to the 30 percent of parents in my district who appear open to reason and rationality: Keep your children home. Allow them to be remote learners for their safety and the safety of your family.

The Illinois Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics analyzed the school district’s “Return to Learning” plans and found them “insufficient.” In other words, the schools are not safe. The Academy’s final recommendation: “We recommend schools not open, unless the recommended modifications/clarifications are made to protect the health and safety of students and staff.” (see the report)

The Academy, which analyzed the plans at the request of the Illinois Education Association and our local association, identified five areas of concern: 1) the classrooms are overcrowded and cannot establish the three feet or six feet of social distancing recommended, depending on the age of the students; 2) students move from class to class in the upper grades, which makes keeping areas sanitized next to impossible; 3) the hallways and stairwells are overcrowded and cannot establish proper social distancing during passing periods, regardless of traffic flow; 4) during lunch, an extended time when masks cannot be worn, students are crowded into spaces that are too small and unventilated; and 5) bathroom hygiene is questionable.

If the schools could rectify these problems, then they could be deemed safe by the Academy, but they cannot. In spite of everyone’s best efforts — from administrators to teachers to aides to custodians to cooks to bus drivers and to the students themselves (who have been amazingly cooperative) — the physical reality of the buildings and the way human beings function cannot be overcome. Making the schools safe from Covid-19 infection is literally impossible.

We have been operating in a hybrid model that splits the student body into two groups who have been attending two days a week (Mondays are non-attendance days devoted to remote learning and planning). The hybrid model was not safe, according to the Academy’s standards, but it came closer to being acceptable. During the first quarter, we had Covid-positive students and staff, and many people had to quarantine or isolate.

According to surveys, the relative success of the hybrid model was irrelevant to about 70% of parents in the district, and they wanted to see the schools go to full attendance. The Board of Education acquiesced to the majority, even though Covid numbers are on the rise in the country, in the state, in the county, in the community, and in the school buildings. Thus far, no amount of data or logic or appeal to compassion has been able to move the Board off their decision to start full attendance beginning next week.

It is a surreal situation for those of us who are trapped. In recognition of the schools’ dangerousness, students have been allowed to opt for full remote from the start of the year. At first it was a small percentage (about 10 percent at the high school), but it grew throughout the first nine weeks; and since the Board’s decision to move to full attendance, there has been a spike in students moving to full-remote status, especially among older students.

Moreover, teachers who have special medical situations — confirmed by a doctor — are being allowed to teach remotely now that we are transitioning to full attendance. I’m thankful that some teachers are allowed that option. However, for the rest of us — those who cannot establish a medical necessity for teaching remotely — we have no choice. We must teach in buildings that the American Academy of Pediatrics deems unsafe, and the Board, too, must understand on some level are unsafe: otherwise, why would they allow students and some staff to opt out of attendance?

This letter is addressed to the 30 percent of parents who seem open to logic and rationality based on scientific data. The other 70 percent — who, I would wager, are getting their information from faulty sources — are beyond being reached at this point.

For the sake of your children’s safety and the safety of your families, do not send them into unsafe school buildings. My colleagues and I will continue to do our best to make their remote-learning experiences beneficial. It can never be the same as in-person learning, but at the same time in-person learning during a deadly pandemic is not the school situation we’re all used to either.

I know remote learning is challenging for many students and parents — perhaps traumatic for some. I get it, and I sympathize. But the difficulties have no bearing on whether or not schools are safe. They are not. We must deal with the problems associated with remote learning — no question — but the solution is not to send children into dangerous spaces.

Again, I write and post this because I am mandated by law to safeguard the health and safety of the children in my charge. At this time, in-person learning is inherently dangerous, and I would be shirking my responsibility as an educator (and, frankly, as a human being) to turn a blind-eye to the reality of the situation.

The photo is not from my school. It is from this site: https://www.kunr.org/post/special-education-faces-additional-challenges-person-learning-during-covid-19#stream/0

The Loss of the Literary Voice and Its Consequences

Posted in July 2019, Uncategorized by Ted Morrissey on July 23, 2019

The following paper was presented at the MLA International Symposium in Lisbon, Portugal, July 23-25, 2019, on “Remembering Lost Voices.” The panel was titled “The Reading Public: Recovering Reader Experiences and Agency.” Other papers were “Recovering the Lost Voices of Nonprofessional Readers” by Tomas Oliver Beebee, Penn State; “Unplugged Reading: Digital Disconnect as a Form of Resistance” by Cátia Ferreira, Católica Portuguesa; and “Recovering Voices Lost: The Reader-Listener as Secondary Witness” by Eden Wales Freedman, Mount Mercy. Helen Groth, New South Wales, served as (impromptu) chair and discussant.


Be forewarned: This paper likely proposes more questions than it offers anything remotely resembling solutions. But as we know framing the proper questions, or framing the questions properly, is a necessary step in any process which hopes to advance some positive effect. Much of this paper is based on the writings and observations of American author William H. Gass (1924-2017), of whom I’ve been a devotee (some may say “disciple”) for a decade. In 1968, at the height of Vietnam War protests, Gass published the essay “The Artist and Society,” in which he states “[naturally] the artist is an enemy of the state . . . [who] is concerned with consciousness, and he makes his changes there.” He goes on to say that “[artful] books and buildings go off under everything—not once but a thousand times” (287, 288). Then Gass asks, “How often has Homer remade men’s minds?” That is, Gass seemed to believe that artists, including literary artists like himself, could have a profound impact on society, enough of an impact to sway governments from one policy position to another, through the sheer force of their art. Reading his words and others’, and taking in other forms of art, could, in fact, alter human consciousness.

Gass of course was hardly alone in this observation, and it may have been believable in 1968 when the Counterculture, led by the United States’ youth and the country’s intellectuals, were reshaping public opinion on the war in Southeast Asia. But changes were already afoot that would undercut the reformative powers of literature, and Gass’s optimism for that matter. In retrospect we can see that many such changes were afoot by the late sixties, but in this paper I want to concern myself chiefly with two: the corporate takeover of the publishing industry, and the coming of age of the Internet and, with it, social media.1

Gass at the podium

Indeed, Gass’s change of heart, from one of optimism to one of pessimism, can be seen in the preface he wrote in 1976 for the re-release of his seminal story collection In the Heart of the Heart of the Country (1968): “The public spends its money at the movies. It fills [sports] stadia with cheers; dances to organized noise; while books die quietly, and more rapidly than their authors. Mammon has no interest in their service” (xiii). He continues, “The contemporary American writer is in no way a part of the societal and political scene. He is therefore not muzzled, for no one fears his bite; nor is he called upon to compose” (xviii). So in less than a decade, Gass went from suggesting that literature could remake human consciousness and reform government policy, to believing that serious writing had no impact on society whatsoever.

What the heck happened?

One of the things that happened was the corporate takeover of the publishing industry. The process was largely undocumented when André Schiffrin wrote The Business of Books (2000). “In Europe and in America,” writes Schiffrin, “publishing has a long tradition as an intellectually and politically engaged profession. Publishers have always prided themselves on their ability to balance the imperative of making money with that of issuing worthwhile books” (5). However, in the turbulent sixties, large conglomerates began acquiring publishing houses. Schiffrin continues, “It is now increasingly the case that the owner’s only interest is in making money and as much as possible” (5, emphasis in original). Schiffrin’s study is wide-ranging and thorough, but he focuses particular attention on the demise of Pantheon, where he’d been managing director for a number of years when it was acquired by Random House, which in turn was purchased by media mogul S. I. Newhouse, who inevitably insisted on changes to try to increase profits, unreasonably and unrealistically so, according to Schiffrin: “As one publishing house after another has been taken over by conglomerates, the owners insist that their new book arm bring in the kind of revenue their newspapers, cable television networks, and films do. . . . New targets have therefore been set in the range of 12-15 percent, three to four times what publishing houses have made in the past” (118-19).

Andre Schiffin

Schiffrin documents in detail the mechanisms put in place to try to flog more profits out of the book business, but for our interests perhaps the most fundamental change was the expectation that every title must make a profit, and not just a modest profit. Before the corporate takeover of publishing, it was common practice for publishers to bring out authors’ first books, knowing they would likely lose money and that it may take years and several books before an author found enough of an audience to be profitable. In the meantime, other titles on a publisher’s list could subsidize the nurturing of a new(er) author. A good example is Cormac McCarthy, who is now a household name among readers of contemporary fiction. But McCarthy’s status as an award-winning and best-selling author was a longtime coming. As Daniel Robert King notes in Cormac McCarthy’s Literary Evolution (2016), “Random House took on [in 1965] and retained McCarthy as one of their authors despite unpromising sales over the first twenty years of his career” (23). In fact, McCarthy’s longevity at Random House was due to the loyalty and hardheadedness of his editor Albert Erskine, who insisted that McCarthy’s early titles stay in print in spite of their anemic sales, even in paperback (32-33).

Cormac McCarthy

But such loyalty would come to an end when corporations took over the industry, and editors were pitted against each other to reach ever-increasing profit expectations. Decisions about which titles to acquire, how large the print runs should be, and whether or not a contract should be offered for a second book from an author increasingly became the purview of the accounting and marketing departments, and not editorial. By 1990, corporate publishers only wanted to publish books that warranted 100,000 press runs. Anything less wasn’t worth the effort, according to Marty Asher, with the Book-of-the-Month Club and then Vintage (qtd. in Schiffrin 106). Obviously such bottom-line-minded expectations would make it foolhardy for an editor to take on a first book from just about any author, even a Cormac-McCarthy-to-be.

This emphasis on profit also impacted representations of ideology. By and large, corporations are run by conservatives (think Rupert Murdach), so it hasn’t just been new authors who have been silenced but any author writing from a liberal perspective. For a time, this corporate bias toward conservatism was somewhat offset by university and independent publishers, but they, too, have been impacted by changes in the publishing world, either due to acquisitions or universities which have had to be more money-minded to stay afloat. It is worth noting that André Schiffrin’s book on the demise of independent publishing is nearly twenty years old. On nearly every front things have gotten worse since 2000. Today there are essentially five commercial publishers remaining in the United States, according to Publisher’s Weekly, the so-called “Big Five”: Penguin Random House, HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster, Hachette Book Group, and Macmillan (Scholastic is number-six, thanks in large part to their publishing the Harry Potter series) (Milliot). These publishers account for more than eighty percent of sales in the U.S.

All of this has led to a homogenization in publishing. It is fiscally safer to publish book after book by the same few dozen authors (James Patterson, Danielle Steele, Nora Roberts, Dan Brown, etc.) than take a chance on a new voice, or if it is a new author, it’s a new author whose book sounds very much like one that proved successful. The runaway success of Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series, for example, gave birth to a new genre: “teen paranormal romance,” essentially beautiful but troubled young women falling in love with vampires, werewolves, ghosts, sea monsters, etc.—Prince Charmings, with fangs, fur, chills or gills.

Meanwhile, along came the Internet. Towards the end of Schiffrin’s book on publishing, again, which came out in 2000, he was mildly optimistic that technological advances could be an avenue for worthwhile books to reach readers. In a sense, his optimism was well-founded. The rise of e-readers and print-on-demand books, in both hardcover and paperback, has made it possible for almost anyone to get their words into print. For example, in 2012 I established Twelve Winters Press, a print-on-demand and digital publisher, to produce my own books as well as other worthy books whose authors were frustrated in finding outlets for their work. We’ve averaged four to six titles per year, mainly fiction, but also poetry and children’s books. Our books are available globally and are reasonably priced. Titles have won awards, and one of our books recently won best cover design in the category of fiction.

We’re only missing one element to be considered a rousing success in independent publishing: readers, also known as book sales. Practically no one will read our books. It is extremely difficult to get our books reviewed—and literally impossible to get them reviewed by major reviewers—and when they are reviewed, reviewers seem duty-bound to moderate their praise with some bit of negative criticism. But it probably wouldn’t matter. Even glowing book reviews have little to no impact on sales. Nearly all of the prestigious book competitions are off limits to small, independent publishers. Either their entry fees are too high, or they require a minimum print run that small presses can’t attain. We’ve had some success in indie competitions, but even they are expensive by small-press standards, and, again, success doesn’t translate to sales. We advertise our books and authors through social media, and for the last couple of years we’ve spent $2,000 to $3,000 annually on traditional advertising, including ads in The New York Review of Books. Practically nada, almost literally nothing. I may as well have shoveled all that cash into an incinerator.

The problem is that a smaller and smaller percentage of Americans are readers, and those who are readers are not interested in well-written, challenging texts. Data on how little Americans read, in every age group, are readily available. What is difficult to discern in the numbers is how little literature is being read. Surveys and studies tend to identify how frequently novels are being read, but it would seem that the vast majority of those books are mysteries, thrillers and other light genres. Perhaps one way of getting some idea of how much literature is being read is to compare it to poetry. According to Statista, eleven percent of Americans claim to read poetry on a regular basis. The reliability of these numbers is suspect, of course, but it may give us some sense of the situation.

One difficulty is answering the question, How does one define literature? William Gass seemed to have a working definition at least, one that he shared in a 1981 interview when he said, “Readers don’t want difficult works—not just mine—anybody’s. The reward for the time, effort, agony of getting into some of these things is always problematic” (Castro 71). Nearly a decade before, Gass compared writing serious fiction to writing poetry, as far as reception was concerned:

I think fiction is going the way of poetry. It’s getting increasingly technical, increasingly aimed at a small audience, and so forth. And this is what happened to poetry—over a long period of time. And now fiction, which I suppose was once a leading popular art form, certainly isn’t any more. And serious fiction does not even hope for it. (Mullinax 14)

If not serious fiction, then, what is being published, especially by the Big Five commercial publishers? According to Gass, in 1976, “[a] lot of modern writers . . . are writing for the fast mind that speeds over the text like those noisy bastards in motor boats. . . .  They stand to literature as fast food to food” (LeClair 25). Indeed, in the early 1970s Gass saw the trend developing of a negative correlation between the quality of the writing (the seriousness of it) and its likelihood for being published at all. Regarding his eventual novel The Tunnel, Gass said that if he achieved his goal “perhaps it will be such a good book no one will want to publish it” (McCauley 12). It was published eventually, in 1995, after nearly thirty years of literary labor. By then Gass claimed that he “expected to be ignored. . . . There were some [critics] who were quite enthusiastic, but by and large it was the usual: just shrugs and nobody paid much attention” (Abowitz 145).

In essence, then, our culture—really, Western culture—has lost the literary voice: today’s Joyce, Woolf, Faulkner, Lawrence, Gass, and so on. It’s an uphill struggle to find a publisher, and once found an even steeper struggle to find readers. Who today would publish Ulysses, leave be Finnegans Wake? If published, perhaps self-published, who would read it?

My time for this presentation grows short, so let me shift gears to the issue of What does it matter that less and less literature is being read? For one thing, I see the rise of Trump and Trumpism, which is synonymous with racism, White Nationalism, xenophobia, misogyny, and a host of other evils, as being related to the loss of the literary voice. This topic is clearly complex, and I can only barely begin to introduce it here, but we know that Trump supporters are in the minority in the United States, perhaps thirty to forty percent of the population, and we know that most of those Trump supporters live in non-urban areas—places where the demographic of white, Christian, heterosexual, patriarchal folks reside in insulated enclaves. They are fed their news and their views from conservative outlets and from Trump himself via Twitter, Fox News, Breitbart, etc. Meanwhile, we know that reading increases awareness of others—let’s say capital “O” Others—and study after study has shown that reading about those not like ourselves also fosters empathy.

Interwoven here is the subject of censorship, which I want to touch on briefly. In The Business of Books, Schiffrin discusses how right-leaning conglomerates overlook left-leaning authors, but beyond that editors in dog-eat-dog corporate publishing houses reject material for fear of its unpopularity, which would in turn adversely affect their pay and job security. Another disturbing trend is self-censorship among readers. It seems that the rising tide of conservatism is creating readers who won’t allow themselves to read material they deem immoral. A couple of anecdotes. In January I attended the MLA National Convention in Chicago, and one of the panels I went to was on Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint turning fifty. Two of three Roth scholars were from Midwestern universities, and they said they hadn’t actually taught Portnoy’s for years because their graduate students are too squeamish to discuss the book in class. The third Roth person was a professor at Princeton, and he was nonplussed. Apparently he teaches his Ivy Leaguers Portnoy’s every other semester.

I had a similar experience just last quarter. For our final reading I had assigned William Gass’s novella Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife. I had one grad student refuse to read it when he discovered it contained “raunchy” language. A couple of other students read it but were put off by its language and sexual subject matter. I’ve been thinking that a fascist society hardly needs to bother imprisoning writers and burning books in the square if they can create a culture where most people don’t like to read and even budding “intellectuals” censor themselves on moral or religious grounds.

Speaking of Gass, long before the deleterious effects of the Internet and cable news could be known, he saw the handwriting on the wall. In his commencement address to the Washington University (St. Louis) Class of 1979, Gass cautioned the grads: “We are expected to get on with our life, to pass over it so swiftly we needn’t notice its lack of quality, the mismatch of theory with thing, the gap between program and practice. . . .  We’ve grown accustomed to the slum our consciousness has become” (“On Reading to Oneself” 222) The cure Gass advised is the reading of great books, “for reading is reasoning, figuring things out through thoughts, making arrangements out of arrangements until we’ve understood a text so fully it is nothing but feeling and pure response” (227). Elsewhere Gass emphasized that “the removal of bad belief [is] as important to a mind as a cancer’s excision [is] to the body it imperil[s]. To have a head full of nonsense is far worse that having a nose full of flu . . .” (“Retrospection” 51). He went on to recommend rigorous self-skepticism regarding one’s own ideas, “theorizing” about errors in thinking: “Skepticism,” he said, “was my rod, my staff, my exercise, and from fixes, my escape.”

We must make those who are prone to bigotry, who believe brown-skinned migrants deserve to be tossed in cages or left to perish in rivers and at sea, who are anxious to accept any fraudulent information that supports their worldview, who deny the threat of climate change in spite of the data, who believe healthcare is a privilege—we must make them self-skeptical, as Gass advised. We must get them in the habit of questioning their own beliefs. We must get them reading again. Or as Laurie Champion describes it, in her article on Thoreau and Bobbie Ann Mason, we must get people in “a transcendental state of mind that involves intellectual and spiritual searches that lead to clear sight” (57).

Doing that, no matter how difficult, must be our mission.

Note

I realize of course that I’m not the first person to lament the sorry state of serious writing in their time. Just a few examples: Emerson, Margaret Fuller and other Transcendentalists founded The Dial in 1840 due in large part to the dearth of decent reading material in spite of their periodical-rich time period. Victorian and Edwardian editor and critic Edward Garnett frequently clashed with the publishers for whom he worked because he felt they didn’t do enough to cultivate a more cosmopolitan appetite among England’s overly conservative and insulated readers. James Joyce famously exiled himself to the Continent mainly due to the sad state of Irish letters. A key difference perhaps, between these thens and now, is that there were a lot of people reading a lot of material, whereas today fewer and fewer people are reading, anything, period.

Works Cited

Abowitz, Richard. “Still Digging: A William Gass Interview.” Ammon, pp. 142-148.

Ammon, Theodore G., editor. Conversations with William H. Gass. UP of Mississippi, 2003.

Castro, Jan Garden. “An Interview with William Gass.” Ammon, pp. 71-80.

Champion, Laurie. “‘I Keep Looking Back to See Where I’ve Been’: Bobbie Ann Mason’s Clear Springs and Henry David Thoreau’s Walden.” Southern Literary Journal, vol. 36, no. 2, 2004, pp. 47-58.

Gass, William H. “The Artist and Society.” Fiction and the Figures of Life, Knopf, 1970, pp. 276-288.

—. “On Reading to Oneself.” Habitations of the Word, Simon & Schuster, 1985, pp. 217-228.

—. Preface. In the Heart of the Heart of the Country, by Gass. 1968. Godine, 1981, pp. xiii-xlvi.

—. “Retrospection.” Life Sentences. Knopf, 2012, pp. 36-55.

King, Daniel Robert. Cormac McCarthy’s Literary Evolution: Editors, Agents, and the Crafting of a Prolific American Author. The U of Tennessee P, 2016.

LeClair, Thomas. “William Gass: The Art of Fiction LXV.” Ammon, pp. 17-38.

McCauley, Carole Spearin. “William H. Gass.” Ammon, pp. 3-12.

Milliot, Jim. “Ranking America’s Largest Publishers.” Publisher’s Weekly, 24 Feb. 2017, https://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/industry-news/publisher-news/article/72889-ranking-america-s-largest-publishers.html. Accessed 14 April 2019.

Mullinax, Gary. “An Interview with William Gass.” Ammon, pp. 13-16.

Schiffrin, André. The Business of Books. Verso, 2000.

A Concise Summary and Analysis of The Mueller Report

Posted in June 2019, Uncategorized by Ted Morrissey on June 12, 2019

I’m excited about the release of my book A Concise Summary and Analysis of The Mueller Report (available in paperback and Kindle editions). I’ve taken the Special Counsel’s nearly 450-page, single-spaced, heavily footnoted, and often redacted tome, and condensed it to about 80 highly readable pages, logically organized into four chapters, plus an Introduction which puts the report in context. Below is an excerpt of the book’s Introduction, but first here is its description in full:

“The Mueller Report,” Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report on Russian interference in the 2016 election and possible obstruction of justice by President Donald Trump, may be the most important political and historical document produced in the 21st century, but it is extremely challenging to read, at nearly 450 single-spaced pages, with almost 2,400 footnotes, sentences, paragraphs and whole pages blacked out, and references to a vast number of people, many of whom have Russian or Ukrainian names that are difficult to process and retain. Award-winning author and educator Ted Morrissey has written a concise summary and analysis of Mueller’s report to assist those who are interested in its contents but find the complete report daunting. “A Concise Summary and Analysis” includes an Introduction and four chapters dealing with the most crucial material in Mueller’s full report: the Trump campaign’s contacts with Russia, Russia’s cyber warfare on the United States, the President’s possible obstruction of justice, and Mueller’s legal analysis. “A Concise Summary and Analysis of The Mueller Report” includes clear citations to the original for those who want to read in more detail about specific issues, and it provides just enough context to make the most complex issues easier to understand. Each chapter is separated into subtitled sections to make it even easier to follow. Don’t rely on hearsay and biased reporting in the media. Read for yourself what it says in “The Mueller Report” without spending months wading through all 450 heavily footnoted and frustratingly redacted pages.

Mueller in Brief Cover 1000

Let me begin where Robert S. Mueller III ends: No person—not even the President of the United States—is above the law. This is the point on which Mueller chose to end his Office’s “Report on the Investigation into Russian Interference in the 2016 Presidential Election,” more familiarly known as The Mueller Report, submitted to William P. Barr, the recently confirmed Attorney General, on March 22, 2019. After nearly two years of extraordinarily tight-lipped investigation (by a Special Counsel’s Office which consisted at its peak of forty personnel working alongside and in coordination with forty FBI agents and other Bureau staff), Mueller filed a two-volume report of nearly 450 pages—one volume discussing Russia’s contacts with members of the Trump team and the Russians’ efforts to sway the election in Trump’s favor; and the other volume discussing the President’s efforts to obstruct the investigations and the legal issues related to matters uncovered by the Special Counsel.

Upon its submission, Attorney General Barr, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, Republicans in Congress, and conservative media (especially Fox News) began the process of misrepresenting the contents of The Mueller Report. Rather than immediately releasing The Report, to Congress and the American people, Bill Barr, on March 24, gave to Congress a four-page summary of what he represented as Mueller’s conclusions: Mueller was not able to find evidence that Trump or members of his campaign conspired with Russia; and on the issue of obstruction of justice, while Mueller did not exonerate the President, Barr and Rosenstein decided there was not sufficient evidence to accuse Trump of committing a crime. When submitting his summary to Congress, Barr also made a public statement in which he communicated these same ideas.

Barr’s letter and his public statement gave Trump and his allies license (as if they needed any) to claim The Mueller Report was a total exoneration of the President and that the investigation had been—as he said repeatedly—a “witch hunt” and a “hoax.” The President also called for an investigation into the investigators, whom he had long characterized as members of a “deep state” liberal conspiracy intent on removing him from office, insinuating, too, that Hillary Clinton and the Democrats were at the root of the plot, still angry over Clinton’s embarrassing loss in the 2016 election. The President accused the FBI of “spying” on his campaign. (As of this writing, Attorney General Barr has, in fact, initiated an investigation into the origins of the Russia probe and has, at times, supported Trump’s characterization of the FBI investigation as “spying.”)

When The Mueller Report was finally released, it was eye-opening as well as jaw-dropping on several levels: the numbers of contacts between Trump’s campaign and Russians and Ukrainians, Russia’s wide-ranging and sophisticated efforts to help Trump win the election, and Trump’s efforts to derail or at least curtail the investigation—to most readers of The Report it was all rather shocking. But therein lay a problem: It was shocking to readers of The Report, and very few people were reading it, or even likely to read it.

As a teacher, writer, librarian and publisher I am more aware than most (in fact I am reminded of it almost daily) that the United States has become a country predominantly of non-readers. It is a challenge to get Americans to read a news article of more than a few paragraphs, leave be a document like The Mueller Report, which presents challenges to even avid readers. It is long, nearly 450 single-spaced pages. It has frequent redactions, interrupting sentences and even disappearing entire paragraphs and whole pages. It is heavily footnoted (2,375 footnotes to be exact). The majority of the footnotes are purely documentary, supplying a citation for a given source, but many of the footnotes are several sentences in length and provide important, eyebrow-raising information themselves. While much of The Report is narrative and tells an intriguing story (oftentimes reading like a Robert Ludlum spy novel), overall it is not organized chronologically. Finally, there is a vast cast of characters to keep in mind as one reads, and many of those characters are Russians or Ukrainians with names that American readers do not easily process and retain.

To date, very few Americans have read The Mueller Report. Even members of Congress, especially Republicans, have not read Mueller’s findings. That is the opinion, for example, of Justin Amash, a Republican Representative from Michigan, who has been the only Republican calling for Trump’s impeachment and openly criticizing Attorney General Barr for his misrepresentations of The Report and for assisting Trump in blocking congressional investigations (even refusing to respond to congressional subpoenas). Amash said that he supported Trump’s impeachment because he actually read The Mueller Report, unlike the majority of his colleagues. Amash conducted a town hall in his hometown of Grand Rapids, Michigan, on May 28, 2019, and was met with standing ovations for his stance on protecting the Constitution over protecting the President. In a video clip that was widely aired a woman who identified as a Trump supporter was interviewed after Amash’s town hall, and she acknowledged that Amash’s descriptions of Trump’s behavior were truly surprising; she said she did not know there was anything negative about Trump in Mueller’s report.

It is anecdotal of course, but the woman may well represent the majority of Americans who get their news from right-wing outlets like Fox.

My hope in writing A Concise Summary and Analysis of The Mueller Report is that more people will become informed about the true contents of Robert Mueller’s report and the findings of the Special Counsel’s two-year investigation.

Regarding my summary and analysis, I have tried to limit myself to the contents of Robert Mueller’s report, and not add a lot of contextual material and updated information that has arisen in the weeks since The Report’s publication. My primary goal was to produce an accurate but attractively readable text, so it would have been counterproductive to write a 300-page summary of Mueller’s 450-page report. In other words, I tried to keep it short while also including the most pertinent information. Nevertheless, from time to time I did find it helpful to include some background information, or to add clarity based on more recent events. I think in each case it is clear that I am adding to The Report, and not drawing from it, in these rare instances.

Throughout I have cited the page numbers from The Mueller Report where I am getting the quoted material or specific paraphrase. It should be an easy task to verify my summary and to read further from The Report itself.

Also, I have organized the summary a bit differently than Mueller organized his report because it seems to me that each volume has two distinct subject matters. Volume I deals with both contacts between members of the Trump campaign and Russians or Ukrainians, and Russia’s efforts to influence the 2016 election, so I have separated these into Chapters 1 and 2 of my summary. Similarly, Volume II discusses Trump’s possible obstruction of justice, and the legal issues surrounding the President’s actions, so Chapters 3 and 4 cover these topics, respectively.

Finally, my original notion was to write a distinct summary followed by a brief analysis (my own take on the events and the issues at hand), but I decided a more effective approach was to provide small doses of analysis along the way. Again, as with the contextual additions, I believe my analytical insertions stand apart from the text of the summary itself. For one thing, if an analysis is Mueller’s, and not my own, it is clearly cited.

Writing Too Good to Publish

Posted in April 2019, Uncategorized by Ted Morrissey on April 21, 2019

The following paper — “Writing Too Good to Publish: A Disheartening Dispatch from the Heartland” — was presented at the North American Review Writing Conference, April 19-21, 2019, in Cedar Falls, Iowa, as part of the panel “Published Worlds.” Other papers presented were “Something About a Frying Pan and a Fire: Why I Gave up a Tenured Position and Launched a Publishing Imprint” by Kathy Flann, and “To Publish or Not to Publish” by Sayeed Ahmad.


 

I want to begin by updating the title of this talk. To the main title “Writing Too Good to Publish,” I’m adding “A Disheartening Dispatch from the Heartland.” I see my presentation as a semi-formal prologue to a paper I’m presenting in July at the MLA International Symposium in Lisbon. That paper is on the loss of the literary voice and its ramifications for society. Today my main objective is to generate some thought and discussion, and I’m building my talk around observations by my literary idol William H. Gass, who quipped in a 1971 interview, regarding his eventual novel The Tunnel, that if he achieved his goal “perhaps it will be such a good book no one will want to publish it,” adding, “I live on that hope.” Gass was suggesting, nearly fifty years ago, that in the publishing world there was emerging a negative correlation between the quality of a book and its likelihood for publication.

Gass imposingSo at the root of my talk is the question: Has Gass’s darkly humorous prediction come true? That is, in 2019 can one produce such a well-written book that no publisher will touch it—or at least no major publisher? Since I’ve gone to the trouble of proposing this topic for the writing conference and putting together some thoughts regarding it, you can no doubt surmise that my answer to the question is yes.

First, I acknowledge that my working thesis is bathed in subjectivity. What, for example, constitutes a “good book”? What did Gass mean by the term in 1971, and is his meaning relevant today? For that matter, what is a “major” publisher?

This last question is perhaps the simplest to answer, so I’ll begin there. When I refer to major publishers, I’m thinking of what Publisher’s Weekly calls the “Big Five” (Milliot), commercial publishers who have the wherewithal to publish an author in a massive press run, and promote the work in a way that will get it reviewed by the top reviewers, put it in the running for prestigious prizes, prominently placed in bookstores, and purchased by libraries far and wide. Publisher’s Weekly identifies the Big Five as Penguin Random House, HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster, Hachette Book Group, and Macmillan (at least as of 2017). Just outside the Big Five is Scholastic. A quick perusal of book spines in Barnes & Noble (the only nationwide bookseller remaining) would suggest there are a lot more commercial publishers than a mere handful, but it’s misleading because these big publishers have been buying up smaller presses for decades, so what appear to be dozens of New York-based publishers are in fact entities which fall under the auspices of a few parent companies.

Cormac McCarthyFor these parent companies, profit is the number-one driving force; in fact, nearly the only force. The situation is efficiently summarized in Daniel Robert King’s Cormac McCarthy’s Literary Evolution (2016). McCarthy’s first publisher was Random House, but “[b]y 1962 Random House was on the path to becoming a big business” (21). King goes on, “In the context of the American publishing industry as a whole, it was the purchase of Random House by RCA in 1965 that marked the real beginning” of book publishers being purchased by corporations whose main financial interest wasn’t publishing books (22). During McCarthy’s time at Random House, presidents came and went, and with each successor there may have been more attention paid to profit and less to literary quality. Perhaps the low point was reached in 1980 with the installment of Alberto Vitale, a former banker who André Schiffrin describes as a “business man with a thuggish disposition and a thoroughly anti-intellectual attitude—the pose of a rough-and-ready street fighter who gets things done and isn’t afraid to do what it takes to make as much money as possible” (qtd. in King 22-23). Chief among Vitale’s changes to the Random House modus operandi, writes Schiffrin, was “that each book should make a profit on its own and that one title should no longer be allowed to subsidize another” (23). This pressure for each book to make a profit has led to a high turnover rate among editors at corporate publishing houses, and agents have replaced editors as “the fixed points in authors’ lives,” according to Schiffrin (23).

By extension, then, agents have had to become more preoccupied with profit potential than the weighty quality of the work. Being a literary agent is not charity work, after all, so what good does it do to take on a project unless one is reasonably certain it can catch the eye of a market-minded editor?

Up until the corporate takeover of the publishing world, which began in the 1960s, editors at places like Random House would find talented writers and nurture their careers until sales could catch up. As King notes, “Random House took on and retained McCarthy as one of their authors despite unpromising sales over the first twenty years of his career” (23). In fact, it was due to the persistence of McCarthy’s editor Albert Erskine that McCarthy’s earliest titles even stayed in print. Had it not been for Erskine’s clout and consistent badgering, Random House might have let McCarthy’s titles go out of print (32-33). Ultimately, McCarthy’s novels were moved to Knopf, which by then, in the early 1990s, had been fully acquired by Random House as an imprint for its “loss leaders”—“low-selling books which add prestige to a company’s name . . . despite their underwhelming sales” (103-104).

Knopf was William Gass’s publisher as well, beginning with the hardcover reprint of Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife in 1971. The outrageously experimental novella was originally published as a special supplement by the literary journal TriQuarterly in 1968. Nineteen seventy-one was of course the year Gass made his comment about writing such a good book no one would publish it. Knopf did publish it, in 1995, and it won a few accolades, including the American Book Award in 1996, but it must have been commercially challenging, especially given Gass’s ambitions for the book’s design. For example, the hardcover edition includes several full-color illustrations. HarperCollins produced a paperback edition in 1996, and just three years later Gass appealed to the small press Dalkey Archive to produce another paperback edition to keep The Tunnel in print. (In 1989, Dalkey began reprinting Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife in paperback.)

Gass worked on The Tunnel for 26 years, and various parts of it were published in more than a dozen literary journals (and in two instances, limited and signed editions by boutique presses). Meanwhile, the publishing industry went through its transformations, along with the reading public. Gass labored on The Tunnel for nearly three decades (along with numerous other projects) in spite of the fact he didn’t expect the novel to receive a hero’s welcome once it was published. He said in 1981, for example, “Readers don’t want difficult works—not just mine—anybody’s. The reward for the time, effort, agony of getting into some of these things is always problematic. It isn’t simply that I have a small audience. Most of the writers I admire don’t really have much of an audience” (Castro 71). Nearly a decade before, Gass compared writing serious fiction to writing poetry, as far as reception was concerned:

I think fiction is going the way of poetry. It’s getting increasingly technical, increasingly more aimed at a small audience, and so forth. And this is what happened to poetry—over a long period of time. And now fiction, which I suppose was once the leading popular art form, certainly isn’t any more. And serious fiction does not even hope for it. (Mullinax 14)

Indeed, by the time The Tunnel finally emerged in book form, Gass claimed that he “expected to be ignored. . . . There were some [critics] who were quite enthusiastic, but by and large it was the usual: just shrugs and nobody paid much attention” (Abowitz 145).

So as the publishing industry transformed from the 1960s onward, with a greater and greater emphasis on profit over literary merit, what sorts of writers were being picked up by the Big Five? According to Gass, in 1976, “[a] lot of modern writers . . . are writing for the fast mind that speeds over the text like those noisy bastards in motor boats. . . . They stand to literature as fast food to food” (LeClair 25). The Internet Age was still an embryo when Gass made this observation. Since then, how much faster have our minds become, how much more inclined toward simplistic texts that can be skimmed at a lightning pace—if read at all?

Obviously, the historical and cultural forces which have led us here are too complicated to explore in such a brief talk, but it may be worth noting that the corporate takeover of the publishing industry and reading’s decline in popularity have been concurrent with the rise and fall of literary postmodernism. Anis Shivani has suggested that by the end of the twentieth century too many fiction writers were engaged in a “pale” imitation of postmodern pioneers like Donald Barthelme and Robert Coover (Shivani et al. 226). He said, “We’re suffering in different ways from the huge wave of appropriation, mixing, and flattening that carried all of us along with it” (227). Shivani further argues that the postmodern effort to “reconcile high and low” culture proved to be a failed experiment. Young writers’ “reverence for junk is too great; they haven’t known anything else but video culture, and they can’t think past it, let alone ironize time and space, restructure it in new narrative” as early postmodernists, like Kurt Vonnegut, were able to do (227). I have only begun to consider possible correlations between the current state of affairs in writing and publishing, and the rise and fall of postmodernism—but I wanted to at least underscore the fact they are historical bedfellows.

I feel I have a unique vantage point regarding the literary landscape. I’m a writer of the sort of stuff spurned by the Big Five. My short fiction and novel excerpts have appeared in nearly 70 journals (including Glimmer Train and Southern Humanities Review) and have earned a few distinctions, but agents and larger publishers remain enthusiastically disinterested. I’ve been teaching high school English in the heartland for 36 years, and I’ve witnessed, in brutal proximity, teenagers’ shrinking interest in reading—reading anything, leave be challenging literature. Indeed, more and more they find the idea of being a reader amusingly quaint and wholly incomprehensible. As a small-press publisher, I’ve discovered that the world is filled with amazing writers and poets who have awe-inspiring manuscripts, but there are practically no readers to be had anywhere. Literally every title I’ve released since founding Twelve Winters Press in 2012 has taken a loss (in spite of almost no labor costs). As a librarian in my hometown library, I experience the phenomenon of avid readers checking out anything written by James Patterson (or his minions), Danielle Steel, Nora Roberts (or her alter ego J. D. Robb), Janet Evanovich, Stephen King, Dan Brown, etc.—but having no interest in sampling fare which may be a wrung or two juicier on the literary food-chain.

Finally, as a lecturer in an online MFA program, I’ve had to reassess what my long-term goals should be. When I first started teaching for Lindenwood University in 2016, I assumed my graduate students would want to be James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, William Faulkner, or at the very least Ernest Hemingway—but I quickly discovered that for most their aspirations were quite different. They want to be J. K. Rowling, J. R. R. Tolkien, George R. R. Martin, Stephenie Meyer, Stephen King, Dan Brown, Janet Evanovich, and, yes, James Patterson. I do what I can to open their eyes to other possibilities, but who am I to say their aims are too low? Who am I to doom them to near-certain obscurity by browbeating them in the general direction of Finnegans Wake? Instead, if they so choose, I hope to make them the best version of James Patterson they can be: perhaps to write like James Patterson on his very best day (or the very best day of whichever writer in his stable is writing his book).

Where, then, does that leave us—we dwindling few who love to read and write challenging texts? Gass had to come to terms with this question himself—although he was able to ride the inertial momentum of mid-century publishing to at least maintain his place on Knopf’s list. In my dreariest moods I look to the preface he wrote for the paperback edition of In the Heart of the Heart of the Country, and I’ll leave you with the Master’s words:

The contemporary American writer is in no way a part of the social and political scene. He is therefore not muzzled, for no one fears his bite; nor is he called upon to compose. Whatever work he does must proceed from a reckless inner need. The world does not beckon, nor does it greatly reward. This is not a boast or a complaint. It is a fact. Serious writing must nowadays be written for the sake of the art. The condition I describe is not extraordinary. Certain scientists, philosophers, historians, and many mathematicians do the same, advancing their causes as they can. One must be satisfied with that. (xviii-xix)

 

Works Cited

Abowitz, Richard. “Still Digging: A William Gass Interview.” Ammon, pp. 142-148.

Ammon, Theodore G., editor. Conversations with William H. Gass. UP of Mississippi, 2003.

Castro, Jan Garden. “An Interview with William Gass.” Ammon, pp. 71-80.

Gass, William H. Preface. In the Heart of the Heart of the Country, by Gass. 1968. Godine, 1981, pp. xiii-xlvi.

King, Daniel Robert. Cormac McCarthy’s Literary Evolution: Editors, Agents, and the Crafting of a Prolific American Author. The U of Tennessee P, 2016.

LeClair, Thomas. “William Gass: The Art of Fiction LXV.” Ammon, pp. 17-38.

Milliot, Jim. “Ranking America’s Largest Publishers.” Publisher’s Weekly, 24 Feb. 2017, https://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/industry-news/publisher-news/article/72889-ranking-america-s-largest-publishers.html. Accessed 14 April 2019.

Mullinax, Gary. “An Interview with William Gass.” Ammon, pp. 13-16.

Shivani, Anis, et al. “Symposium: Is Postmodernism in decline? Why or why not? How do you assess its legacy?” Boulevard, vol. 26, nos. 1-2, 2010, pp. 226-246.

An open letter to school board members

Posted in August 2020, Uncategorized by Ted Morrissey on August 2, 2020

School boards have been in the process of deciding what to do about school come mid-August, and essentially they’ve weighed three options: full attendance; full remote; or some hybrid combination in between. In my mind — and the minds of thousands of other educators — it should be a simple decision. By far the safest approach — the approach that would prevent students and adults from becoming infected at school — is full-remote learning. Yet many school boards are not opting for remote learning.

Allow me to make my case for remote learning. First, though, let me say that I began teaching in 1984, in East Moline, Illinois. After a few years I moved to Mt. Vernon, Illinois, where I taught for more than a decade before being recruited to come to Williamsville, Illinois, in 1998. So I’m embarking on my 38th year in the classroom, my 23rd here at Williamsville. Earlier this summer I put in my notice to retire in four years, so if I make it I’ll retire in 2024 with 42 years in the classroom.

What is more, while here in Williamsville the school board essentially paid for me to earn a pedagogically based Ph.D. from Illinois State University. Presumably their generosity was based at least in part on the idea it was a sound investment because they could avail themselves of the knowledge and wisdom I accrued in earning that quite rare degree.

Thus, I don’t think of myself as an expert in very many things, but after 38 years and a doctorate I believe I’ve earned the right to call myself an expert when it comes to schools, classrooms and kids. You wouldn’t want me rewiring your house, or grooming your dog, or organizing your stock portfolio — but when it comes to teaching school and working with children, I encourage you to pay attention.

There’s been talk all summer of “returning to school safely” — but the concept is a fairy tale. A lot of people seem to think that if we expand teachers’ roles to include becoming makeshift nurses, custodians and juvie prison guards, we can somehow prevent COVID-19 infection in the school.

We can’t. I’m sorry, but it’s true. Children are going to become infected. Some will have serious medical complications. Some will die. Adults in the building, especially teachers, will become infected. Some will have serious medical complications. Some will die.

Rather than going through all the reasons we won’t be able to keep schools free of Covid, let me, instead, point to the parable of professional sports. Various professional sports leagues have returned to action this summer, or tried to. Perhaps it began with the PGA golf tour in June, but then there were the hockey players of the NHL, and most recently Major League Baseball. Professional sports leagues, individual franchises, and the players themselves have unlimited resources to keep athletes free of COVID-19, and yet they haven’t been able to.

Every league had essentially the same strategy: Get athletes inside a Covid-free “bubble.” Test them for the virus constantly (in some cases twice a day). Isolate them from the general population (train in isolation, eat and sleep in isolation, travel in isolation). Have their environments professionally sanitized every day. And quarantine anyone in the bubble at the first sign of a Covid symptom.

Professional golf went one tournament before players and caddies started testing positive for Covid. Pro hockey players were experiencing an infection rate five times the average population. And we’ve seen in the last couple of weeks what’s been happening in Major League Baseball: multiple outbreaks and canceled games.

Doctors believe the problem is the very first step: Getting athletes inside the bubble free of infection. It appears nearly impossible. With people being asymptomatic or pre-symptomatic, even with the most rigorous screening by professional medical personnel, someone with the virus is going to slip through. Then you have the situation of others being, in essence, trapped inside the bubble with a teammate or fellow competitor who is highly contagious.

So professional sports teams, with all their resources, can’t prevent the spread of infection. But somehow masked schoolteachers are going to provide an impenetrable shield against COVID-19 armed with thermometers, spray bottles and paper towels. The assertion would be comical if it weren’t deadly serious.

To repeat: The idea of a “safe” school is a fantasy.

Another important point — and again let me remind you this is coming from somebody who’s spent nearly four decades teaching school — has to do with quality of instruction. A lot of people advocating for in-person instruction are basing their argument on the premise that in-person instruction is superior to remote instruction. Under normal circumstances, I would wholeheartedly agree. But these circumstances are far from normal.

Teaching, in the best of times, is exhausting. We love teaching, but it wears us out physically, mentally and emotionally. Now, many teachers (including me) are being asked to teach both in-person and remotely, plus pitch in to monitor students’ health, and to clean desks, doors, cabinets, keyboards — wherever kids have been. Even still, kids and adults are going to have to eat and drink during the day, removing their masks for several minutes. Schools are considering building “mask breaks” into the schedule because it will be difficult for children and adults to wear masks for several hours without interruption. Moreover, maintaining social distancing at all times will be impossible.

Nurses who have been dealing with the novel coronavirus since March have been reaching out to schoolteachers with advice on how to avoid becoming infected and how to avoid bringing the virus home to their families. Besides masks, of course, teachers should wear face shields, goggles or at least eyeglasses, they recommend. Teachers should have separate work clothes and home clothes, including shoes, and their work clothes and shoes should not be allowed inside their homes. They recommend having a safe space, like the trunk of their car, to store their work clothes and shoes. They say that every day work clothes should go directly into the washing machine, and teachers should go directly into the shower. Directly. Every day.

So here’s the thing: Between the extra duties, the extra precautions, and the extra worries, teachers who are teaching in-person will be burned out by mid-September. Even if they haven’t contracted COVID-19 (and many will), they will be physically, mentally and emotionally wiped out. And the year is only getting started. Then what level of quality instruction will teachers be able to provide their students, in person or remotely? Within a matter of weeks, in-person faculty will more closely resemble the cast of The Walking Dead than enthusiastic and energetic educators.

It’s worth remembering, too, that we are only just beginning this fight. Life, including school life, won’t return to pre-Covid normal until people are vaccinated against the virus. The hope is that there will be a safe and effective vaccine by late 2020 or early 2021. But that’s just the first step (and an enormous one it is). Then the vaccine must be mass produced. Estimates vary between epidemiologists, but somewhere between 150 million to over 200 million Americans will have to be vaccinated in order to establish herd immunity. Meanwhile, a system for distributing and administering the vaccinations will have to be created (none exists presently). (link)

Therefore, even after the vaccine is found, it will take many months to vaccinate the numbers of people needed to establish a threshold of infection that would allow us to return to “normal.” In other words, educators will be dealing with COVID-19 well into the 2021-2022 school year, if not beyond. Decimating your faculty through overwork, over-worry, and infection within the first few weeks of this school year simply isn’t logical.

Defeating Covid is a marathon, and beginning school with a four-minute-mile pace is a flawed strategy. Teachers can make remote instruction effective — if we have the time, the energy and the support.

(Image is from a school in Germany, found here at CNN.com.)

Why e-learning should continue this fall

Posted in July 2020, Uncategorized by Ted Morrissey on July 7, 2020

I understand why so many people want students to return to their classrooms this fall, along with their teachers and coaches and all the other school personnel who make education possible. I understand because I’m one of those people. I’m entering my 37th year teaching high school English, and nothing would make me happier than to sit down with a group of enthusiastic students and have a boisterous discussion about Macbeth or Beowulf, or to hear my speech students inform their classmates and me about their most beloved topics.

I miss the students. I miss talking to them, and teaching them, and making them laugh every so often. I miss it all.

Nevertheless, after staying abreast of the latest developments regarding COVID-19, and thinking through myriad scenarios, I’ve come to the conclusion that having in-school attendance in August would be foolhardy. The risks are too great, and the logistical challenges are too overwhelming.

Even though here in Illinois we were largely successful in flattening the curve — the mantra in the early days of Covid — we certainly didn’t vanquish the virus. Some of our neighboring states, like Iowa and Missouri, did very little to contain the spread. Locally there are people testing positive for the virus, and we’ve had several deaths in our community. Because of our early success in dealing with Covid, we’ve been moving from one reopening phase to the next like clockwork — but the reopening itself is due to economic and political pressure. It’s not based on the best advice of medical science.

As a country, we are losing our battle with the virus. Nationwide there are nearly 3 million confirmed cases, and we’ve recorded over 130,000 deaths (many epidemiologists believe our numbers are under-reported because in late 2019 and early 2020 we were not identifying people with COVID-19, and attributing their illnesses and deaths to other causes). I believe I had the virus in mid-March, just as our state was shutting down, but I was neither a movie star nor a professional athlete so I couldn’t get a confirming test. Luckily, I recovered fairly quickly without medical assistance. Weeks later an antibody test came back negative, but the antibody tests are unreliable for several reasons.

Having in-person school this fall would be a logistical nightmare. The one-two punch that the CDC has been recommending from the beginning — wearing a mask and staying at least six feet apart — would be all but impossible to maintain in schools. Besides, recent studies have suggested social distancing isn’t very effective indoors since COVID-19 stays in the air longer and is more contagious when airborne than first believed.

To quote a recently published article, “Global experts: Ignoring airborne COVID spread risky” (Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy, 6 July 2020): “The authors [of a recent study] said that handwashing and physical distancing are appropriate—but not sufficient—to provide protection against respiratory microdroplets, particularly in poorly ventilated indoor environments such as those that have been at the center of several ‘superspreading’ events.”

I’m familiar with “poorly ventilated indoor environments,” more affectionately known as classrooms in my world.

The researchers concluded: “In order to control the pandemic, pending the availability of a vaccine, all routes of transmission must be interrupted.”

All routes of transmission must be interrupted. If we open schools this August, even in some modified way (with alternating days of attendance, for example), we will be providing countless routes of transmission. Even with our best efforts to enforce the wearing of masks and keep students as far apart as possible, there are going to be routes of transmission. In classrooms certainly. There are also buses, cafeterias, locker rooms, restrooms, hallways.

If a student tests positive for Covid, or if they find out they’ve been exposed, what then? What if that exposure was, say, on a Sunday and it’s now Wednesday when they find out their situation? Every student, teacher, custodian, cook that they’ve been around — should they be quarantined? Tested? What will that quarantining mean for their families?

Throughout my career, teaching at various schools, we’ve been figuring out ways to encourage students to come to school no matter what, with rewards and punishments. The goal has always been perfect attendance. Now we must reverse course and tell students to stay away if they have even the hint of a Covid symptom. Fall allergy season is fast approaching. Farmers are about to harvest their fields. Many, many students suffer from seasonal allergies and many suffer from asthma. From August to December every year they have coughs and runny noses and dripping sinuses.

How will we know if their Kleenex addiction is an allergy or COVID-19? How will they?

Ask any teacher. Ask how many boxes of tissue they go through in a normal year.

And what about teachers? Nationally one-third of schoolteachers are 50 or older. I’ll be 58 in September. According to the CDC, by the end of April more than 90% of the Covid deaths in the U.S. were people 55 or older. (link) Many older teachers have chronic health issues that put them further at risk. But even younger teachers can have health issues that place them in greater jeopardy in spite of their age.

If a teacher is exposed to Covid, or tests positive, they’ll have to be out of the classroom for at least two weeks (even with no serious medical consequences). In every school I’ve taught in, most of the substitute teachers were retired teachers in their fifties, sixties and even seventies. Even if they’d be willing to step in for a few weeks, should they? Should we ask them to? Is it even ethical? (After reading my post, a colleague pointed out that if substitute teachers step forward, they generally work in different buildings and for more than one district, which means subs could easily facilitate an outbreak themselves.)

I know that keeping children from going to school in person has significant drawbacks. I know it creates all kinds of obstacles for parents. Students suffer in many ways, especially perhaps special-needs students. I get it, I sympathize, and if I could I’d wave a Harry Potter-like wand and make it not so. I’d do it in a heartbeat.

In addition to nearly four decades of classroom teaching (seniors in high school predominantly), since 2016 I’ve also taught online graduate courses in a university’s MFA program. I learned that online teaching and in-person teaching are inherently different. A teacher must approach them differently, with different methods and different expectations. There’s a learning curve. It’s instinct to try to recreate your classroom curriculum in the virtual environment — to just shift everything from one to the other lock, stock and barrel.

Unfortunately, for the most part, that approach doesn’t work very well. Even for classroom veterans, online teaching requires rethinking and retooling. In order for it to be effective — to be meaningful and hopefully even enjoyable for students — requires considerable thought, investigation of online tools and platforms, development of methodology that is unique to web-based environments, and so forth.

For that matter, students have to learn to be online students, too. How they learn, how they keep track of their assignments, how they submit them, how they respond to feedback — everything is different online, and students, like teachers, will have a learning curve also.

This past March teachers in Illinois and many other states suddenly found themselves teaching online — literally with no preparation whatsoever. Teachers are professionals, and we adjusted as quickly and as best as we could — but it was far from ideal. The online teaching that students and parents experienced in March, April and May was not representative of what online teaching can be, with the requisite time to prepare.

The people who are in charge of deciding whether or not we return to the classroom in August, and, if so, under what circumstances and conditions, are under a great deal of pressure. I don’t envy them that. Various surveys and news stories have suggested that the majority of parents want their children to go back to their physical school this fall. I understand it. Like I said earlier, I want that too.

Also like I said earlier, in spite of the majority’s desire, the reality of the pandemic makes it ill-advised, even dangerous — for students, teachers, other educational personnel, students’ families, teachers’ families, the school’s community, and even the state and the country . . . even the world.

Here’s what I recommend: School this fall should be exclusively online (for all the reasons I’ve cited in this post, plus a lot more that I didn’t but could). Teachers should begin their professional duties in mid-August (or whatever their contracts dictate), and they should start the challenging and time-consuming process (if done well) of preparing for online teaching. Then have students join their online courses about mid-September. Hopefully by the end of 2020, the virus will be better contained (right now it’s skyrocketing out of control), and there will be a legitimate expectation for a vaccine or at least an effective treatment for COVID-19. Perhaps, with luck, we could resume in-class teaching in January 2021.

It may seem like a slow start to the year — having teachers begin serious preparation mid-August and bringing students into the mix mid-September — but even with an online approach there are innumerable details that must be attended to. Families, for instance, are going to need time to figure out how to make their life work if their children are not returning to the classroom in August (remember that teachers have families too). Schools must make sure they have everything they need to make online learning effective (which may require purchasing hardware, buying subscriptions, setting up platforms); and school districts need to help students have what they need at home to be successful (adequate computers, reliable web connection, etc.).

At present, the laws regarding school calendars would be problematic under the recommendation I’m making — but to my way of thinking those nuts and bolts shouldn’t supersede an approach that is best for students and all those concerned. The pandemic presents the most challenging educational situation in at least a century. Lawmakers should consider revising the rule book given these extraordinary circumstances.

I’ll reiterate that I don’t envy the people who have to make the tough decisions. I’m glad that many years ago I decided to spend my career hanging out with kids in the classroom, and leaving the big knuckle-biting decisions to others. Whatever they decide, I and every teacher will do our best to make schools safe and effective learning environments, as we always do.

We love and respect kids, and we’ll get them through this pandemic one way or another. Hopefully we’ll survive it too.

William H. Gass’s Transformative Translations of Rilke

Posted in February 2020, Uncategorized by Ted Morrissey on February 22, 2020

The following paper, “The ‘Movement of Matter in Mind’: William H. Gass’s Transformative Translations of Rilke,” was presented at the Louisville Conference on Literature and Culture Since 1900, held Feb. 20-23, 2020, University of Louisville. Other papers in the panel “Germanic Modernisms Then and Now” were “Exodus into Death: Effi Briest as the Other” by Olivia G. Gabor-Peirce, Western Michigan University; “The Meaning of Life–Thoughts on Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s Die Frau ohne Schatten” by Enno Lohmeyer, Case Western Reserve University; and “The Ek-static Image: Tracing Essence of Language & Poetry in Heidegger” by Ariana Nadia Nash, University of Buffalo, SUNY. The panel was chaired by Brit Thompson, University of Louisville.


The “Movement of Matter in Mind”:
William H. Gass’s Transformative Translations of Rilke

I would like to say a motivation for this paper is that one of William H. Gass’s least read and least appreciated books is Reading Rilke: Reflections on the Problems of Translation, and I want to direct some much-deserved attention to this oddly beautiful and beautifully odd book; but in truth I don’t believe I grasped the breadth of the slight until I was absorbing material in preparation of writing. Of course, as a devotee of the Master I believe that all of Gass’s books are read too little and appreciated too sparingly. Indeed I’ve been on a mission for more than a decade to right that wrong.

reading rilke coverNevertheless, I didn’t realize just how invisible Reading Rilke was even among those cherished few who cherish Gass nearly as much as I. I was struck, for example, when re-reading Stanley Fogel’s otherwise excellent assessment of Gass’s work up to the point of its publication in the summer 2005 edition of The Review of Contemporary Fiction that Fogel doesn’t speak of Reading Rilke at all, even though it came out in 1999, and Gass’s translations of Rilke that it collects began to appear in print in 1975 (in North Country, University of North Dakota).1 Similarly, H. L. Hix’s useful Understanding William H. Gass (2002) is organized by Gass’s book publications, and there is no chapter devoted to Reading Rilke. In fact, there is barely a mention beyond Hix’s pointing out the strangeness of the Rilke book not appearing until 1999 even though “Gass reports having been preoccupied with Rilke nearly his whole adult life, indeed seldom letting a day pass without reading some Rilke” (4). One more example: Wilson L. Holloway’s fascinating book William Gass, which offers a mid-career assessment of “an emerging figure in contemporary literature” (ix), makes only a passing reference to Rilke as one of Gass’s chief influences. Granted, Holloway’s book appeared nearly a decade before Reading Rilke, but it also appeared five years before The Tunnel, and yet Holloway managed an entire chapter on the work-in-progress based on the excerpts that had been appearing now and again since 1969—interspersed with appearances of Gass’s Rilke translations throughout the same period.

It seems strange to me, now, that books and articles devoted to explicating William Gass wouldn’t spend more time discussing Gass’s self-identified greatest influence.

Gass and Rilke togetherI could go on referencing the lack of references in Gass scholarship to Reading Rilke, but, I suspect, my point is beyond made, like a bed piled high with a scaffolding of pillows. I think at the root of the silence regarding Reading Rilke is that writers tend to organize their assessments by genre (Gass’s fiction versus Gass’s criticism or Gass’s nonfiction), and Reading Rilke is a hodgepodge of a book: part Rilke biography, part autobiography, part criticism, part philosophical inquiry (into translation, into art), and part poetry collection—laced throughout with Gass’s insights, advice, and arid humor. Writers of Gass’s ilk have always written for a narrow audience (an audience which shrinks by the day), and the book’s various components appeal to even thinner subgroups of readers. Taken as a whole, however, I believe anyone who is interested in art, literature, and especially poetry—in aesthetics in other words—would find a book very much to taste, indeed, a book to savor.

I must admit that I came to Reading Rilke after partaking of the Master’s less hybridized offerings. Like many, I found the fiction first (In the Heart of the Heart of the Country, for instance, and Omensetter’s Luck); then the criticism (Fiction and the Figures of Life, On Being Blue, and The World Within the Word, etc.). But anyone who knows Gass at all knows of his Rilke obsession, something about which he made no bones.

It is clear in Gass’s “Fifty Literary Pillars,” in which he catalogs the (actually) fifty-one books/authors that shaped him as a writer and thinker. Four of the pillars belong to Rilke, and about the Duino Elegies in particular Gass writes, “[These poems] gave me my innermost thoughts, and then they gave those thoughts an expression I could never have imagined possible.” While discussing Sonnets to Orpheus, Gass acknowledges that “[i]t is probably embarrassingly clear by now that works of art are my objects of worship,” and, moreover, “works of art are often more real than we are because they embody human consciousness completely fulfilled” (WHG Reader 43). Heide Ziegler, a scholar and a friend of William Gass with whom he consulted on his Rilke work, describes the Gass-Rilke connection even more dramatically than Gass did himself, writing, “William H. Gass is Rainer Maria Rilke’s alter ego, deeply tied to him through like sensitivity, insight, giftedness. Deeply tied to him most of all, however, through their shared concept of space, Rilke’s Raum, Weltraum, the realm of all things, which denies any chronological sequence” (55). She goes further in describing their connectedness: “Gass the son attempts to provide that space for Rilke the father” (56).

We do not, of course, have to rely on secondary-source assessments of what Rilke meant to Gass and his work: we have Gass’s own analyses, especially in Reading Rilke:

The poet himself is as close to me as any human being has ever been […] because his work has taught me what real art ought to be; how it can matter to a life through its lifetime; how commitment can course like blood through the body of your words until the writing stirs, rises, opens its eyes; and, finally, because his work allows me to measure what we call achievement: how tall his is, how small mine. (xv-xvi)

Regarding the creative process as he learned it from reading Rilke, Gass writes, “In the case of the poet, the perception will have soaked for a long time in a marinade of mind, in a slather of language, in a history of poetic practice.” At which point the “resulting object will not be like other objects; it will have been invested with consciousness, the consciousness of the artist.” Done properly, those who experience the object “shall share this other superior awareness” (148). It is worth noting that Gass is using poet in a classical sense, as anyone who aspires to create art. Though Gass did not consider himself a poet per se (and in fact disparaged his own efforts), he aspired to make his fiction, especially, art objects via their poetic use of language.

The above quote references the word perception, and this is such a vital point in this discussion it warrants further attention. Gass believed that Rilke’s aesthetic philosophy grew out of his infatuation with the sculptor Rodin, about whom he wrote critical essays and was attached to as a secretary for a time. The lessons learned included that “the poet’s eye needs to be so candid that [… everything] must be fearlessly reported,” and that “exactitude is prerequisite to achievement.” Ultimately, then, it is “not the imitation of nature but its transformation [that] is the artist’s aim” (Reading Rilke 40). However, it is not the poet’s objective to describe everything encountered with candor and precision. Art only happens via careful selection. Gass writes, “Rilke proclaimed the poet’s saintly need to accept reality in all its aspects, meanwhile welcoming only those parts of the world for which he could compose an ennobling description” (31). The only means by which a poet—any writer—has to ennoble even the ugliest aspects of the world is though the artful use of language.

This lesson is perhaps the most profound one that Gass took from his literary idol. Throughout his career, Gass mixed the loveliest of language with the coarsest (even crudest) of subject matter, a technique that many critics criticized. Indeed, in Gass’s most ambitious novel, The Tunnel, his greatest ambition was to write about the Holocaust in a beautifully literary way via his first-person narrator William Kohler, whose correspondences with Gass himself were uncomfortably close for many readers. After a twenty-six-year gestation, The Tunnel appeared in 1995 and promptly won the American Book Award in ’96; however, it also quaked a tidal wave of negative reviews. Richard Abowitz, who interviewed Gass about his book in 1998, captured the controversy quite succinctly:

The Tunnel may well be the greatest prose performance since Nabokov’s Pale Fire, but only the most stalwart reader will be able to last the full trip [650-plus pages] through Kohler’s anti-Semitic, sexually depraved and bathroom-humor obsessed world. When The Tunnel was published, almost every major critic felt the need to weigh in on it. Many abandoned their professional tone and responded in ways that were shockingly personal. (142)

Gass claimed that he was prepared for the onslaught, saying, “I knew it would happen. The book does set a number of traps for reviewers, and that identification certainly occurred [that Gass and his narrator were practically the same person]. But the book in sly ways even encourages it; so that these people who don’t really know how to read will fall into the trap.”  He added, “[S]o when it happened, I had to suffer it. I had asked for it in a way” (144).

Returning to Reading Rilke itself, the opening chapter is a biographical sketch of the poet. In “Fifty Literary Pillars,” Gass calls Rilke “the most romantic of romantics” (WHG Reader 43), and in this first chapter Gass explains in detail this designation. He writes, “With a romantic naiveté for which we may feel some nostalgia now, and out of a precocity for personality as well as verse, Rilke struggled his entire life to be a poet—not a pure poet, but purely a poet—because he felt, against good advice and much experience to the contrary, that poetry could only be written by one who was already a poet: and a poet was above ordinary life” (23). Gass devotes several sentences to describing the concept of a true poet, and concludes by saying that “the true poet was an agent of transfiguration whose sole function was the almost magical movement of matter into mind” (24).

Gass’s reputation as a literary critic was at least equal to his reputation as a writer of fiction. Indeed, among the things that impeded the production of his fiction, which he preferred to write, were the unending requests to write reviews and to speak at symposia—requests that were accompanied by a paycheck and were therefore difficult to turn down. One of the joys of reading Reading Rilke is that Gass has collected and expanded on his insights into the act of literary translation, which, he says, is the highest form of reading: “Translating is reading, reading of the best, the most essential kind” (50). That is, to render something, like a poem, into your mother tongue from a language that you have learned through study, you must read carefully, deeply and slowly, meanwhile taking into consideration a plethora of contextual elements. Even still, the most successful of translations leave behind something important in the original: “It is frequently said that translation is a form of betrayal: it is a traduction, a reconstitution made of sacrifice and revision. One bails to keep the boat afloat” (51).

Gass elaborates on the idea of translation as essential reading by comparing his translations of specific Rilkean lines to those produced by other translators, organized chronologically from Leishman (1939) to Oswald (1992), and then Gass himself in 1999: fifteen translators of Rilke all together. Gass carefully critiques each rendering, discussing the choices each translator made, what they captured of the original and what escaped. His critiques are ruthless, but he is just as hard on himself. He refers to himself in the third-person as “a jackal who comes along after the kill to nose over the uneaten hunks, keeping everything he likes” to acknowledge his debt to Rilke’s earlier translators and his benefitting from their successes and their shortcomings. Elsewhere, still in third-person critique, Gass compares his effort in translating a particular line to someone “who flails like [he is] drowning here” (80). About the difficulty of translation in general, Gass writes, “The individuality, the quirkiness, the bone-headed nature of every translation is inevitable” (61).

Nevertheless, Gass obviously believed literary translation was worthwhile, and with proper care it could be done well. Even though something is always left behind, he says that “[t]he central ideas of the stanza, provided we have a proper hold on them, can be transported without loss” (51). Gass goes into detail about some of the pitfalls of translating, and perhaps chief among them is that “[m]any translators do no bother to understand their texts [because t]hat would interfere with their own creativity and with their perception of what the poet ought to have said.” He adds that such translators “would rather be original than right,” comparing their work to a type of thievery whereby “they insist on repainting a stolen horse” (69). In the final analysis, a worthwhile translation is one that “allow[s] us a glimpse of the greatness of the original” (53). Such a translation does not come easily, emphasizes Gass, who was known for his obsessive revising: “It will usually take many readings to arrive at the right place. Somewhere amid various versions like a ghost the original will drift” (54).

Gass’s translations of Rilke’s poetry (and some of his prose) are sprinkled throughout Reading Rilke, but the climactic section is a straightforward collection of Gass’s translations of the Duino Elegies,2 without commentary. These poems began appearing in 1978 when The American Poetry Review published Gass’s translations of the first and ninth elegies, and they concluded the same year the collection appeared, 1999, when Conjunctions and The Minnesota Review published the seventh and fifth elegies respectively. Even though critics have been reluctant to recognize the significance of Gass’s translations of Rilke, Gass himself consistently gave them pride of place. At the celebration of Gass’s ninetieth birthday, on the campus of Washington University in St. Louis, the author read excerpts from his works over the decades, essentially in chronological order, with the exception that he saved his reading of Rilke’s “The Death of the Poet” for his finale—a dramatic conclusion to be sure given that the birthday celebration had to be postponed by several months due to Gass’s deteriorating health (see my post, which includes a link to a video of the entire reading). Moreover, Gass’s final authorized work was The William H. Gass Reader, published in 2018, a year after his death; however, Gass was able to see the book into press, selecting its contents and their order himself. The nearly 1,000-page reader opens with Gass’s translation of an untitled poem from Rilke’s The Book of Hours (“Put my eyes out”); and Gass ended the reader with an essay titled “The Death of the Author,” echoing Rilke’s poem “The Death of the Poet.”

To publish Reading Rilke, Gass had to force himself to complete his translations of the Duino Elegies, a project on which he’d been working nearly as long as he’d worked on his magnum opus The Tunnel—that is, more than twenty years. He said finishing the book was necessary to “get rid of [Rilke’s] ghost” (Abowitz 147), but the exorcism didn’t work, given the evidence of the prominent place Gass reserved for Rilke for the remainder of his life. As a disciple of the Master I of course believe there is too little attention paid to William Gass, period, but his translations of Rilke and the book Reading Rilke have generated almost no scholarly attention whatsoever—which translates to an inverse correlation given the primacy of Rilke in Gass’s world. Indeed, in “The Seventh Elegy” Gass discovered the core secret to living a meaningful life: to cherish, to internalize and thus immortalize “great things,” like poetry, literature and art. He writes, “Those few attainments which display the grace of great things, we must take into ourselves and save from an indifferent multitude. Because all our knowledge, even the gift of a pleasant life, comes to nothing if we know more, enjoy more, only to destroy more” (165).

I encourage you to take into yourself Reading Rilke and the Master’s masterful translations of Rainer Maria Rilke.

Notes

  1. The Acknowledgments page for Reading Rilke does not wholly agree with William Gass’s own vita (released to me by Mary Henderson Gass). For example, the vita lists the earliest published Rilke translations as “The Panther” and “Torso of an Archaic Apollo” in North Country, 1975; and then indicates that the latter was reprinted in River Styx 8 in 1981. North Country does not appear on the Acknowledgments page. Nor does Schreibheft 54, credited with first publishing “The First Elegy” in 2000; nor does The Eliot Review, credited with publishing “Marionette Theater” (undated but presumably between 1984 and 1998). I’m not sure what to make of these omissions, other than perhaps Gass forgot and did not consult his vita when preparing Reading Rilke.
  2. Gass’s translations of the Duino Elegies are not available online, but other translations are accessible, including A. S. Kline’s at the poetry in translation site. An added bonus is that Kline’s elegies are illustrated by photos of Rodin’s sculptures.

Works Cited

Abowitz, Richard. “Still Digging: A William Gass Interview.” Conversations with William H. Gass, edited by Theodore G. Ammon, UP of Mississippi, 2003, pp. 142-148.

Fogel, Stanley. “William H. Gass.” The Review of Contemporary Fiction, vol. 25, no. 2, 2005, pp. 7-45.

Gass, William H. Reading Rilke: Reflections on the Problems of Translation. Basic Books, 1999.

—. The William H. Gass Reader. Knopf, 2018.

Hix, H. L. Understanding William H. Gass, U of South Carolina P, 2002.

Holloway, Watson L. William Gass, Twayne, 1990.

Ziegler, Heide. “Three Encounters with Germany: Geothe, Hölderlin, Rilke.” The Review of Contemporary Fiction, vol. 24, no. 3, 2004, pp. 46-58.

 

 

Another kind of Trump obstruction

Posted in December 2019, Uncategorized by Ted Morrissey on December 23, 2019

On December 18, 2019, the House of Representatives impeached Donald Trump on two articles: abuse of power, and obstruction of Congress. The latter was largely based on Trump’s refusal to recognize the House’s authority of oversight, and therefore not turning over requests for documents while also instructing witnesses not to cooperate, including in defiance of legally issued subpoenas (in both instances, regarding documents and witnesses).

Many on the Left (and many on the Right, for that matter) felt that there should have been other articles, including an article for obstruction of justice. Based in large part on Trump’s actions as described in the little-read Mueller Report, over a thousand former federal prosecutors, who served both Democratic and Republican administrations, signed an open letter that stated, “Each of us believes that the conduct of President Trump described in Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report would, in the case of any other person not covered by the Office of Legal Counsel policy against indicting a sitting President, result in multiple felony charges for obstruction of justice.” (link)

The purpose of this post is to suggest that there could be a third charge of obstruction added to the list, and this one may be even more insidious than the other two: obstruction of education.

While many schools across the country have used the Trump era as an opportunity for teaching real-world issues, others, especially those located in the heart of Trump country, have become complicit in Trump’s actions — both the illegal ones and the unseemly ones — by not allowing teachers to discuss Trump and Trump-related events with their students. Some have gone so far as to threaten teachers with disciplinary action for pointing out easily verifiable statements of fact about him or his administration.

While classes in history and government may seem the most obvious for discussing Trump and his policies, English, speech, journalism and other communication courses should also be sites of Trump-related analysis, as it is through the manipulation of language that the President and his allies have managed to consolidate and maintain support among nearly half the country (but well beyond half in Trump country).

Perhaps the chief way that the commander-in-chief has retained his followers is through the promulgation of misinformation (i.e. lies). According to The Washington Post, whose fact-checkers have maintained a running list throughout Trump’s presidency, as of Dec. 10, 2019, he had told 15, 413 “untruths.” What is more, the number of false statements has been accelerating, and in 2019 he had made more false claims than in the previous two years. (link)

Between untrue tweets, false statements to the press during his frequent White House lawn gaggles, and utterances to his favorite personalities on Fox News, Trump and the Republican Party have been able to construct an alternate reality that paints Trump as a heroic figure standing against a deep-state conspiracy. Anyone who attempts to cut through the fog of misinformation to reveal a truer picture — journalists, activists, teachers — is a co-conspirator with the deep state.

Never mind that most of Trump’s misdeeds — including the impeachable ones — have been stated or acted out in public. In a downright Orwellian moment, Trump said to a group of veterans on July 24, 2018: “Just stick with us, don’t believe the crap you see from these people, the fake news.… Just remember, what you’re seeing and what you’re reading is not what’s happening …” (link)

In retrospect, it is frightening to see how well Trump’s tactics have worked: his followers literally do not believe what they see and hear themselves. A key element in Trumpian obfuscation has been the erasure of the line between fact and opinion. There are no hard, verifiable facts in Trump world. Everything is an opinion; therefore, his followers can dismiss statements of fact — by educators, for instance — as mere opinions. Then Trump-supporting students, parents (and perhaps even school officials and board of education members) charge teachers with pushing their own opinions on their innocent, doe-eyed students.

Teachers who are trying to share fact-based information with their students are cast as Rasputin-like brainwashers of young minds and therefore silenced, so that even the students from families who do not support President Trump are prevented from considering the ramifications of his presidency. The topic of Trump, in any context, is taboo in the heart of Trump country — which, as it happens, tends to be in the key Midwestern states that Trump must win in 2020.

Many of the students who are prevented from pondering the Trump presidency will be voting age by Election Day in November, making the Trump taboo in the classroom another variation of voter suppression, which the GOP has been using to maintain power for years. In fact, a recently leaked audio recording suggests Republicans will be ramping up their suppression efforts in 2020. Trump adviser Justin Clark told a group of supporters on November 21, 2019, that voter suppression is “going to be a much bigger program, a much more aggressive program, a much better-funded program.” (link)

Again, it is largely through propaganda via social media that the iron curtain has been erected between the distracted public and the true nature of Trump and his presidency. To that end, many schools have added courses, or at least units, that teach students how to navigate spaces like Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and YouTube to help them avoid falling prey to propaganda and gaslighting. (link)

In fact, professional organizations have officially advocated for this kind of educational experience in particular. In March of 2019, the National Council of the Teachers of English released its “Resolution on English Education for Critical Literacy in Politics and Media.” It reads that the NCTE

  • promote pedagogy and scholarly curricula in English and related subjects that instruct students in civic and critical literacy, going beyond basic reading comprehension to the thinking skills that enable students to analyze and evaluate sophisticated persuasive techniques in all texts, genres, and types of media, current and yet to be imagined;
  • support classroom practices that examine and question uses of language in order to discern inhumane, misinformative, or dishonest discourse and arguments;
  • prioritize research and pedagogies that encourage students to become “critical thinkers, consumers, and creators who advocate for and actively contribute to a better world”;
  • provide resources to mitigate the effect of new technologies and platforms that accelerate and destabilize our information environment;
  • support the integration of reliable, balanced, and credible news sources within classroom practices at all levels of education;
  • resist attempts to influence civic discussion through falsehoods, unwarranted doubts, prejudicial or stereotypical ideas, attempts to shame or silence, or other techniques that deteriorate the quality of public deliberation; and
  • model civic literacy and conversation by creating a supportive environment where students can have an informed discussion and engage with current events and civic issues while staying mindful and critical of the difference between the intent and impact of their language. (link)

I will highlight in particular that English teachers are called upon to “resist attempts to influence civic discussion through falsehoods, unwarranted doubts, prejudicial or stereotypical ideas, attempts to shame or silence, or other techniques that deteriorate the quality of public deliberation.” Trump-supporting students and parents — and school officials who bow down to their pressure by not allowing teachers to discuss with their students current affairs related to President Trump (especially issues related to his impeachment) — are clearly “influenc[ing] civic discussion through … prejudicial ideas … and attempts to shame or silence.” Moreover, school officials who threaten teachers with disciplinary procedures are applying “other techniques that deteriorate the quality of public deliberation.”

It would, of course, be unprofessional and unethical for teachers to employ classroom practices meant to sway young minds — like using grades to reward anti-Trump commentary and punish pro-Trump commentary, or subjecting pro-Trump students to hostility — but it seems that what Trump supporters are afraid of are facts themselves being influential, so therefore teachers must be muzzled, no matter how easily verifiable the facts are, or how publicly Trump laid bare the deeds himself.

Preventing educators from discussing Trump and Trump-related issues with their students via intimidation is textbook fascism, “forcibly suppressing opposition and criticism,” which is part of the first definition at Dictionary.com. Historically, fascists have targeted journalists, writers, educators and intellectuals in general because they share the common characteristic of trafficking in the truth — and truth is the number-one enemy of authoritarians. It must remain veiled at all cost.

A final point I will make is that parents certainly have the right to shield their children from certain topics and specific ideologies, and that is why homeschooling and private schools exist, so that parents who do not support the diverse nature of public schooling can educate their children in another manner. I have no problem with that: it is democratic; it is quintessentially American. But parents should not have the right to turn public schools into private ones by dictating curriculum and classroom practices which impact all students.

When they do (or when they are allowed to do it), it becomes yet another sort of Trump obstruction: the obstruction of education.

The New Lost Generation

Posted in October 2019, Uncategorized by Ted Morrissey on October 27, 2019

Gertrude Stein is credited with coining the phrase “the Lost Generation” in referring to the young Americans who emerged from the First World War years with shattered belief systems. The brutality and totality of the conflict left them confused, hopeless and directionless. The values that previous generations could believe in, could rely on, had been eviscerated and subverted by the war’s carnage.

As a high school English teacher, as someone who has been teaching predominantly seniors for the last 37 years, I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the image of a “lost generation” in the context of today’s seventeen- and eighteen-year-olds. These are young people who have grown up with technology, who have had their own tablets and cell phones from an early age, who have lived much of their lives on social media.

The term “social” media seems, in retrospect, ironic because in fact their technology has cut them off from each other in meaningful and fruitful ways. They tend to exist in digital enclaves of like-minded others who repeat and reaffirm their view of the world — no matter how misguided or downright false that view may be.

Their Snapchat threads and Twitter feeds are filled with trivial details about each other’s lives, and “news” regarding athletes, entertainers, and flash-in-the-pan Internet celebrities.

Most do not read books, even for school if they can help it.

But the furthest lost of this New Lost Generation are those young people who have grown up in a Trump-supporting environment, which is almost without exception a Fox News environment, a Breitbart environment, an InfoWars environment. What little awareness of the broader world they have is refracted through these deliberately distorting lenses.

young women at trump rally

They wholeheartedly believe things like . . .

Mexicans and other Hispanic people are pouring unchecked into the country through an all but nonexistent border, murdering and raping and selling drugs while also reaping the benefits of hardworking Americans’ tax dollars with free housing, healthcare, and schooling.

Muslims are terrorists, and many such Muslim terrorists have crept into the United States through the southern border, embedded among the hordes of Mexican murderers, rapists and drug dealers.

Guns are inherently good, and the more “good people” who own guns the safer other “good people” would be. Mass shootings wouldn’t take place if more good people were carrying guns — apparently all the time, everywhere.

Christians are inherently better than non-Christians. The separation of Church and State is at the root of all our country’s problems. The government needs to be more overtly Christian, and so do public schools.

Socialism is inherently bad. Only lazy people want “free stuff.” Government handouts make people weak — and increase the national debt.

Public schools and universities are filled with liberal teachers and professors who want to indoctrinate conservative young people into being liberals with their radical and dangerous leftist ideas. Discussing issues related to ideologies and public policies is a form of leftist brainwashing that must be guarded against.

Journalists are the enemy of the people. Any reporting on the President and his supporters that is negative must be false, made up for malicious purposes.

Democrats advocate ideas that are not simply wrong: they are dangerous.

Meanwhile unwavering support of Donald Trump has taught this New Lost Generation that . . .

Disrespectful, name-calling rants on Twitter are fine. Even if those rants are racist, misogynistic, or xenophobic.

Spreading misinformation and baldfaced lies is fine. In fact, opinions are the new facts for the New Lost Generation.

Infidelity to your spouse is fine. Lying about it is fine. Paying off people to conceal it is fine. Conspiring with others to keep it a secret is fine.

Women are to be used, cast aside and (if necessary) bought.

Neo-Nazis and White Supremacists are fine people.

Coequal branches of government is a myth. The Executive branch, especially the President, is supreme.

Checks-and-balances is a myth. Any attempted check is a conspiracy and a coup.

The Rule of Law is a myth. Officers of the court, members of Congress, requests for information and interviews, even subpoenas are powerless and meaningless. Laughable in fact.

The Constitution is meaningless.

Majority-rule is meaningless. Democracy is a pointless concept. The minority can rule if they play dirty enough, if they band together single-mindedly enough.

Accepting and even encouraging assistance from another country — including a geopolitical enemy — to win an election is fine. Only results matter. The method is without substance or consequence.

Making money — as much money as possible, in any way possible, partnered with anyone who can make it happen — should be one’s greatest goal in life. One shouldn’t let ethics, common decency or even the law stand in one’s way of making money.

If people or the environment is harmed, even destroyed, in the service of making money, so be it.

Claiming oneself a Christian without adhering, even remotely, to values associated with Christianity is fine. Saying the word is all that matters. Actions are something else entirely.

Donald Trump will be out of office someday, but his corrupt legacy will live on exponentially via the New Lost Generation — unless they can manage to find their way and save themselves. In spite of it all, I hold out hope. I must.

(Photo found here.)

Austen’s successful debut at the Illinois Shakespeare Festival

Posted in July 2019, Uncategorized by Ted Morrissey on July 7, 2019

Every summer central Illinoisans are treated to the pleasures of the Illinois Shakespeare Festival in Bloomington, now in its 42nd season. The tradition has been to offer two works by Shakespeare and one of another sort. For the 2019 season, the non-Shakespeare offering is an adaptation of Jane Austen’s classic novel Pride and Prejudice (1813), marking the first time Austen has been adapted for the ISF stage. I will cut to the chase: Go see it.

I attended the preview performance July 5. The evening’s sultriness did not discourage Festival fans from attending. The players, managing in their Regency garb, played to a sold-out house. In back, the artistic crew took a last look before finalizing the production for the summer. Among those taking notes was Deanna Jent, who adapted and directed Pride and Prejudice. Jent, a professor at Fontbonne University, also directed last summer’s performance of Merry Wives of Windsor. Those Regency costumes, which effectively broadcast the Austen vibe, were designed by Misti Bradford.

The central figure of the novel, strong-willed Elizabeth Bennet (second born of five daughters, all in search of husbands), was played by Aidaa Peerzada, who shone especially brightly when clashing on stage with prideful Mr. Darcy (Fred Geyer), but downright radiantly when on stage with the imperious Lady De Bourgh (Lisa Gaye Dixon). Peerzada and Geyer had a tall order to fill, almost as tall as a Regency gentleman’s hat, to capture the chemistry of one of literature’s most famous couples, and they have risen to the challenge admirably.

However, I must especially commend Dixon’s performance as the meddling Lady De Bourgh. The part has limited stage time, but Dixon commanded the space, just as the role required, and De Bourgh’s verbal sparring with Elizabeth brought out Peerzada’s best. Fourth of July  fireworks fizzled compared to Dixon and Peerzada’s pyrotechnics.

All of the performers added to the delightful adaptation, including Kevin McKillip (Mr. Bennet), Nisi Sturgis (Mrs. Bennet), Ashley Hart Adams (Jane Bennet, the eldest sister and Elizbeth’s special confidant), and Chauncy Thomas (the always affable Mr. Bingley). I especially appreciate McKillip’s sense of comedic timing. The veteran actor perhaps captures Jane Austen’s dry wit best of all the talented players in the cast — at times eliciting a roar from the audience merely by the perfect look.

The highlight of the production — for me, and it would seem the audience as a whole — was Jordan Coughtry’s interpretation of Mr. Collins, a cousin of Mr. Bennet who arrives to assess the Bennet property that he will one day inherit and to select which Bennet daughter he will marry (at least, that is his design). Coughtry is a remarkable Mr. Collins, sculpting Austen’s clownish clergyman into a character who is both true to the novelist’s original vision but also unique among the many actors who have portrayed him on the screen. Coughtry’s Collins is pompous, over-confident, insensitive — and yet wholly endearing . . . to the audience, that is, but not so much to the Bennets.

Coughtry is almost too good. He owns the stage in the first half of the play, which could be seen as problematic since Mr. Collins is a secondary character in Pride and Prejudice — important certainly, but normally one thinks of Elizabeth and Jane as dominating the reader’s attention. Perhaps fortunately, Mr. Collins’s stage time is lessened in the second half of the play, which allows Elizabeth, Mr. Darcy, and other characters more central to the plot to shine a bit brighter.

Nevertheless, Coughtry’s Collins commands the largest laughs, and the audience always perked up when he stepped on stage.

My only concern regarding the production is that it closely resembles the Joe Wright-directed film version of 2005 (starring Keira Knightley as Elizabeth and Matthew Macfadyen as Mr. Darcy; screenplay by Deborah Moggach). Rather than an adaptation of the novel, at times the Festival play seems more like a pastiche of the Joe Wright film. I recognize, however, that this is an idiosyncratic concern. Besides having taught the novel in college courses a few times, I have watched the film many, many times. It is one of my favorites, and I’ve shown it to classes more times than I can count. The typical Festival-goer would not be burdened with such familiarity.

To be clear: I’m not suggesting something like plagiarism or even mimicry, not at all. The unfolding of the play definitely adheres to Austen’s original work in ways that the Wright/Moggach film does not. In fact, one of the things I admire most about Deanna Jent’s adaptation is that she oftentimes advances the plot via characters’ narrating the action in third-person snippets taken from the pages of the novel, or nearly so. It is a clever way to compress the time span of the original and bring into the script some of Austen’s narrative voice — a treat for actors and audience alike.

Speaking of treats, Jent’s adaptation also makes terrific use of dance, as does Austen’s novel. In straitlaced Regency England, dancing was critical to courtship, and Austen’s Netherfield Ball scene is one of the greats in all of English-language literature. Likewise, Jent masterfully employs dance in the service of plot advancement, characterization, and mood-setting. (Sarah West is credited as dance captain for the ISF production, and Gregory Merriman as choreographer — kudos to both.)

It’s difficult to imagine a central Illinois summer without the Shakespeare Festival, and this production of Pride and Prejudice is yet another triumph in its proud history. I repeat: Go see it while you have the opportunity.

(As You Like It and Caesar are the Bardic offerings this summer.)