12 Winters Blog

“Honored by the Error”: The Literary Friendship of Gass and Gaddis

Posted in Uncategorized by Ted Morrissey on October 21, 2022

The following paper was presented at the William Gaddis Centenary Conference, Washington University, St. Louis, Missouri, October 20-22, 2022. It was part of the opening panel on Friday, Oct. 21, “Historical Gaddis & Literary Gaddis.” I had the honor of introducing the keynote speaker, Steven Moore. See the end of this post for my introductory remarks.

Anyone who knows William Gaddis or William Gass more than just a little likely knows of their long friendship. They first met at the National Book Award ceremony April 21, 1976—Gass being one of the judges that gave the prize to J R—and when Gaddis was near death in 1998 Bill Gass was one of the last people he wanted to speak to. Unfortunately Gass received the message too garbled and too late, and that final telephone conversation never took place. Throughout their more than twenty-year friendship, they supported each other’s work in myriad ways, both publicly and privately, and they shared in the amusement of people confusing them due to their sound-alike names and similar ambitions when it came to the written word.

William Gaddis, 1922-1998

I’m ashamed to admit that I was nearly 40 when I learned of both writers practically simultaneously, which I hope indicts the shortcomings of the U.S.’s literary culture more severely than it does my own. What I mean is, I read Gass’s brilliant introduction to The Recognitions before embarking on my maiden voyage into Gaddis’s now-mythical inaugural novel. Indeed, Gass’s introduction is probably almost as well known as the novel itself, and quite possibly more frequently read than the masterpiece it precedes in the Penguin Classics edition. The intro took on a life of its own, being reprinted in various iterations and quoted countless times. Unlike the book it introduces, the piece’s brilliance was recognized (sorry) from the start. Michael Millman, senior editor at Viking Penguin, wrote to Gass on January 21, 1993: “Would you have any objections to our approaching The New York Times Book Review [sic] about running your introduction? In my experience . . . I can’t remember another time when we had an essay of this caliber as an introduction to one of our volumes. . . .”

William H. Gass, 1924-2017

As we recall, Gass begins the piece by talking about the enigmas and confusions surrounding William Gaddis. Writes Gass, “Even The New York Times, at one low point, attributed his third novel, Carpenter’s Gothic, to that self-same and similarly sounding person. Yes, perhaps William Gaddis is not B. Traven after all, or J.D. Salinger, Ambrose Bierce, or Thomas Pynchon. Perhaps he is me” (179). What follows is where I borrowed for this paper’s title: “When I was congratulated,” continues Gass, “I was always gracious. When I was falsely credited, I was honored by the error.” In his tribute to Gaddis, in 1999, Gass said that he “could enjoy these mistakes, since Gaddis seemed equally amused” (204).

It’s difficult to say when the two writers became aware of each other’s work. They were close contemporaries. Gaddis was born in 1922, Gass in ’24. The Recognitions came out in 1955, the same decade that Gass’s earliest fiction began to appear (the literary journal Accent, published by University of Illinois-Urbana’s English Department, co-edited by Stanley Elkin, included three pieces by Gass in its Winter 1958 number). Gass’s writing began to appear here and there in this journal or that (unlikely to be on Gaddis’s radar), but his first novel, Omensetter’s Luck, came out in 1966, quickly followed by In the Heart of the Heart of the Country (a collection of novellas and stories) and Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife (a wildly experimental novella), both in 1968, and Fiction and the Figures of Life (a collection of essays, including essays on the writer’s craft), in 1970. The essays were well regarded by Gass’s peers. We know, for example, that Cormac McCarthy acquired a copy of the collection while he was writing Child of God, published in ’73 (King 31).

It seems fair to assert, then, that by the ’70s both Gaddis and Gass had read one another, and apparently approvingly. In a Gaddis letter dated March 17, 1976, having to do with J R’s National Book Award nomination, he references Gass, writing to his second wife Judith, “But if the book selections are odd, the judges are even odder; a writer, a critic, and a complete idiot: Wm Gass, Mary McCarthy, and Maurice Dolbier” (Letters 310). Compared to the epithet he uses for Dolbier, a novelist among other things, too, the neutrality of “a writer” almost sounds like praise. That same year, 1976, Gass talks about Gaddis in his “Art of Fiction” interview in The Paris Review, specifically in response to Thomas LeClair’s question “Who are some living novelists you respect?” Gaddis makes the list. Gass says he admires Gaddis for the same reasons he admires John Barth: “What I like . . . is the unifying squeeze which that great intellectual grasp of his gives to his work, and the combination of enormous knowledge with fine feeling and artistic pride and total control. I really admire a master” (37). Gass underscores Gaddis’s masterful control of the narrative apparatuses in his books.

Gass read his peers’ work and commented on it regularly, in interviews, guest lectures, critical articles, and book reviews. Gaddis, on the other hand, was not inclined to read his contemporaries. Steven Moore writes that “[h]e seemed to have little interest in the novels of those contemporaries with whom he is most often associated,” including Barth, Barthelme, Robert Coover, Don DeLillo, John Hawkes, Cormac McCarthy, and Thomas Pynchon. “William H. Gass was an exception,” says Moore, “whom he admired both personally and professionally” (William Gaddis 13). At the tribute to her father in 1999, Sarah Gaddis said, “William Gass was important to Gaddis. . . . He held Gass in the highest esteem for his work, and no other writer made him feel so understood” (150-151). This respect for Gass and his opinions, literary and otherwise, is made clear by Gaddis’s frequently quoting or paraphrasing his friend in letters to others over the years (e.g. see Letters pp. 423, 459, 464, 477 and 481); and his admiration for Gass’s abilities as a writer is put plainly in an April 13, 1994, letter to Michael Silverblatt, host of the literary radio program Bookworm: “Gass is for me our foremost writer, a magician with the language” (Letters 507).

Similarly, Gass’s admiration of Gaddis had a great deal to do with his poetic use of language. In a 1984 interview with Arthur M. Saltzman, Gass said that “all the really fine poets now are writing fiction. I would stack up paragraphs of Hawkes, Coover, Elkin, or Gaddis against the better poets writing now. Just from the power of the poetic impulse itself, the ‘poets’ wouldn’t have a chance” (91). In Gass’s introduction to The Recognitions he writes about the poetry of both that book and J R, saying: “. . . J R was as different from the earlier novel as Joyce from James. But do not put down what you have to go to J R yet, even if it is almost as musical as Finnegans Wake. . . . [W]e must always listen to the language; it is our first sign of the presence of a master’s hand; and when we do that, when we listen, it is because we have first pronounced the words and performed the text, so when we listen, we hear, hear ourselves singing the saying . . .” (184).

After their meeting at the National Book Award ceremony, the two writers became fast friends. The following year they were slated to be at a writers’ conference in Sarasota, Florida, and Gaddis’s participation was somewhat contingent on Gass’s being there, also. In a March 18 letter to Judith, Gaddis laments that other writers had canceled or declined—namely Barth, Susan Sontag, and Donald Barthelme—and says that “if Gass abruptly disappears I may be tempted to do the same.” Gaddis explains that he was looking forward to “hav[ing] a good & encouraging talk with William Gass [who is] coming with his wife [Mary].” Otherwise Gaddis had been “shying from readings and panels” because they interfered with his writing process. He notes that “Gass admires me because I’ve been able to stay out (till now), I admire him because he separates it all clearly & relaxedly in his head” (Letters 319). Later that year, Gaddis was scheduled to appear at an event closer to home, in Stonington, New York, for which—he says in a July 7, 1977, letter to Joy Williams and Rust Hills—he was “girding his loins.” Part of his trepidation was that “it won’t have Gass” (321).

Reading their personal correspondence, filled with warm regards and jokes that each man knows will land because of their kindred kinds of humor, it is obvious how much they genuinely liked each other. An excellent example of this tone appears in a letter to Gass dated August 25, 1980, in which Gaddis alludes to a previous trip to Washington University in St. Louis. Gaddis begins, “Dear Bill. Attending a stylish Hamptons opening of a very good painter [Polly Kraft] out here.” He believes that Gass will appreciate her art and has enclosed some slides of her paintings. He says, “I inveigled them from her on grounds of your sterling generous & rowdy character & Mary’s good looks.” Then, “I write this on the assumption that you are still alive, after day after day reports of 114° in St. Louis (my recollection being -10°)” (Letters 358). Gaddis had been in St. Louis in February 1979 for a three-week teaching session at Wash U. A few months beforehand (October 14, 1978) he wrote to his daughter Sarah about receiving “a letter from Washington Univ in St. Louis (where Bill Gass is)” with the teaching proposal. The letter was from Stanley Elkin, a writer who is “marvelous.” Gaddis says that he “accepted immediately . . . mostly for the prospect of rowdy time with Elkin & Gass & I’m really looking forward to it. I think we’ve all 3 got similar views on what good writing’s about plus highly compatible senses of humor” (Letters 341). He concludes the August 25, 1980, letter by encouraging Gass and his wife to visit him on Long Island when they can. It is an open invitation that Gaddis expresses in several letters.

Their relationship was not just about mutual admiration and sharing “rowdy” times together. They also did what they could to advance each other’s careers and reputations. Gass’s efforts on Gaddis’s behalf began with his judgment of J R for the National Book Award and continued for the next two decades. It included his writing the introduction for the Penguin edition of The Recognitions, and his being instrumental in bringing Gaddis to St. Louis to teach, and then again, in 1994, to contribute to a symposium on “The Writer and Religion.” What is more, Gass wrote a recommendation that contributed to Gaddis’s being awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1981. Gaddis wrote to him (April 12), “Do you KNOW what joy (read money, prestige, vainglory) your kind effort has contributed to this modest household?” (Letters 361). Gaddis, for his part, appeared to always have Gass’s best interests at heart. In the 1980 letter in which he references St. Louis’s harsh weather, he also writes that he “escaped Knopf for Viking (a move I’d encourage you in . . . enthusiastic leaves-you-alone . . .)”; and he recommends a specific editor at Viking he thinks Gass would like (Letters 358). In 1991 and ’92 Gass more or less sequestered himself at the Getty Center in Los Angeles, to complete, at long last, his novel The Tunnel, which he’d been writing since 1966. Gaddis wrote to him at his Santa Monica address to offer some comic relief (composing much of the letter in Huck Finn-esque dialect), as well as encouragement and support. He says, “[I]t would be something if we both finished these god dam books this same year 1992 . . .” (“Letter [January?] 1992”). Gaddis, presumably, is referring to A Frolic of His Own, published in 1994. Gaddis informs Gass that his daughter Sarah is soon to arrive in California also and closes by saying “let me know if theres [sic] anything I can do for you here.”

If one were to do a Venn diagram (so popular these days) of the two writers’ influences, there would of course be notable common ground. Both had a taste for some Medieval authors as well as Elizabethans, especially Donne and Shakespeare (Gaddis’s favorite play was As You Like It, while Gass counted Antony and Cleopatra as one of his “Fifty Literary Pillars” [Moore 11; Gass 36]). Contemporary European authors were among each man’s favorites, perhaps most notably Rilke, who was Gass’s literary lodestar. They had their differences too, however. Gaddis claimed to have read little of James Joyce, in spite of the critics who were convinced of the Irish writer’s influence; whereas Gass counted Ulysses and Finnegans Wake among his “pillars” and alluded to Joyce frequently in his nonfiction. Perhaps the most significant disagreement centered around Russian novelists, particularly Dostoevsky, whose place for Gaddis, says Steven Moore, was “paramount” (10).

This difference of opinion was comically and touchingly captured by Gass in his piece about the two writers’ participation in a trip to Soviet Russia in 1985, which included frigid visits to landmarks associated with Dostoevsky and especially his writing of Crime and Punishment. Gass was in the mood to be flippant and wanted Gaddis to be too. Writes Gass, “Gaddis’s love for the Russian novel—and for the predictable Russians at that—had surprised me, though in hindsight it shouldn’t have, if I’d kept The Recognitions fully in front of me . . .” (94). As such, Gaddis didn’t “relish [Gass’s] popping off” during the tour, and Gass’s wife Mary worked to keep his tongue in check by squeezing his arm when she knew he was about to say something that could prove regrettable. Gass continues, “I could see [Gaddis’s] youthful love glowing plainly when our group visited Dostoyevsky’s apartment. The sight of the master’s desk actually wet Willy’s eyes. I envied him. When my eyes moistened, it was only for Bette Davis, and such a shallow show of weakness made me angry with my soul” (196-97).

Gass concluded his tribute to his friend by recounting Gaddis’s arrival at a celebration in his honor in Cologne, Germany: “Gaddis slowly emerged into a starfall of flashbulbs worthy of the Academy Awards, the popping of a hundred corks” (205). I don’t believe in an afterlife, although I think it’s a swell idea. In fact, I like to imagine a Literary Great Beyond, a kind of Valhalla for writers instead of warriors. And if such a place did exist, I would hope that the great friends, Gaddis and Gass, were both greeted as novelist titans just as Gaddis was on that glorious Teutonic night.

Works Cited

Gaddis, Sarah. “A Note of Gratitude.” Conjunctions 33, 1999, pp. 149-51.

Gaddis, William. Letter to William H. Gass. [January?] 1992. Gass Papers, Washington University in St. Louis.

——. The Letters of William Gaddis, edited by Steven Moore, Dalkey Archive Press, 2013.

Gass, William H. A Temple of Texts. Dalkey Archive Press, 2007.

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.” Conversations with William H. Gass, edited by Theodore G. Ammon, UP of Mississippi, 2003, pp. 17-38.

Millman, Michael. Letter to William H. Gass. 21 Jan. 1993. Gass Papers, Washington University in St. Louis.

Moore, Steven. William Gaddis: Expanded Edition, Bloomsbury, 2015.

Saltzman, Arthur M. “An Interview with William Gass.” Conversations with William H. Gass, edited by Theodore G. Ammon, UP of Mississippi, 2003, pp. 81-95.

Keynote Introduction of Steven Moore

Introducing Steven Moore (foreground) at Holmes Lounge, Washington University, St. Louis, as part of the William Gaddis Centenary Conference. (Photo: Mary Henderson Gass)

I don’t recall the context, but some twenty years ago I said “Everything I know about William Gaddis I learned from Steven Moore.” For the past few weeks, in anticipation of this conference, I’ve been getting back into a William Gaddis state of mind, and it occurred to me that the statement is still true. Everything I know about William Gaddis I learned from Steven Moore. Like so many of us, I first encountered Steven’s scholarship while grappling with The Recognitions. His Reader’s Guide, first published in 1982, was an invaluable lifeline. A revised edition appeared in 1995, and an edition translated into German was brought out in 1998. As my own interests were sparked by Gaddis’s work, Steven continued to be my guide, especially his critical biography of Gaddis and his books, simply titled William Gaddis—both the 1989 edition, and the expanded edition of 2015. As if being the founder and leading voice of William Gaddis studies wasn’t enough, Steven has produced scholarship in an impressively diverse range of areas; perhaps most notable are his two volumes of The Novel, An Alternative History, the latter of which won the Christian Gauss Award for literary criticism in 2013. However, one of the more obscure credits on his bibliography is the most personally meaningful to me. In 2012 I was finalizing my first academic book for publication—a postmodern take on the Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf—and my publisher was hoping I could land a scholar of note to write the book’s foreword. I was hoping that too. A few years earlier I’d had one brief exchange of emails with Steven. He’d actually contacted me for assistance with a Gaddis project (I think he was editing the letters). In my recollection I was little to no help. However, that one exchange encouraged me to reach out to Steven about writing the foreword. To my surprise, he agreed to do it. I sent him the manuscript and in short order he’d written a wonderfully insightful, not to mention generous, opening for the monograph. My only concern was reading reviews that would say something like “What a terrific foreword—it’s too bad Steven Moore couldn’t have written the whole book.” Luckily for us all, Steven has written several whole books, and he’s not done yet. This coming spring, Zerogram Press will release his memoir Dalkey Days about his time with the legendary Dalkey Archive Press from 1987-96. We have to wait a bit for the book, but our time of waiting to hear this keynote address—on “New Directions for Gaddis Scholarship”—is over. Please help me welcome Steven Moore.

Joyce’s Ulysses as a Catalog of Narrative Techniques for MFA Candidates

Posted in Uncategorized by Ted Morrissey on February 22, 2022

(The following paper was presented at the Southwest Popular/American Culture Association Conference in Albuquerque, New Mexico, Feb. 26, 2022, moderated by Yasminda Choate, Seminole State College.)

I must say regarding the title of this talk: what it lacks in cleverness it at least makes up for in near-childlike self-explanation. I’m going to discuss why focusing an entire course on a single daunting text like Ulysses is worthwhile, at least in the setting of an MFA program; and I’m going to offer some specific suggestions for reading focuses and writing assignments. (It’s not one of those papers you run into at conferences sometimes, a paper that purports to be about how waxed fruit influenced the writing style of Gertrude Stein, and ten minutes in the presenter hasn’t yet mentioned waxed fruit, Gertrude Stein, or writing style, or, for that matter, writing.)

First some further context: I teach in an MFA in Writing program that has both on-campus and online courses of the two traditional varieties: workshop and literature. I teach online literature courses exclusively. Nevertheless, I do think this course, or this kind of course, could work just as well in-person. I have the luxury of designing my own courses. Maybe three years ago, I decided to pitch a course with a singular focus: James Joyce’s legendarily difficult novel Ulysses. My thinking was that it would be a great text for discussing a wide array of narrative techniques, all gathered together in one unruly place. Also, for people planning to be fiction writers (meaning probably novelists) and perhaps wanting to be college teachers themselves, being familiar with the book that many consider the greatest English-language novel of the twentieth century, if not of all time, would be beneficial—if for no other reason than to avoid embarrassment at some future department mixer.

I’ve now taught the course several times (four?), and it’s scheduled again for this summer. From my perspective it’s been a success, and also a blast to teach. Student evaluations support my perspective. (Pro tip: I call the course “Joyce’s Ulysses” to try to avoid confusion; nevertheless, I do get the occasional student hoping to take a deep dive into Homer—which would also be a great course.) The course attracts students with a variety of motives, but a common one is that they’ve tried reading Ulysses before—and have had to limp, defeated, from the field of battle (a nod to Ulysses’ first publishers, Jane Heap and Margaret Anderson). Or, often, it sat on a shelf, untouched, glaring arrogantly at its owner for years. Now, with some guidance and the motivation of a grade hanging in the balance, they hope to slay the beast, or at least land a scratch.

I can relate. I’m among those who tried and failed a few times to read Ulysses before finally getting through the text in its entirety. So as a recovering Ulysses failure, I can speak to the students on their own level of self-loathing, and offer them the sort of encouragement they need to not drop the course after seeing the reading requirements. When I started teaching Ulysses we had eleven-week sessions; then the program was revised to offer eight-week sessions. The book was a bear to teach in eleven weeks, so eight is extra challenging. Yet doable.

We look at two episodes per week, and tackle an inhumane amount of material the penultimate week, episodes 16, 17, and 18; that is, Part III, “Eumaeus,” “Ithaca,” and “Penelope,” some 150 pages—which isn’t unusual in a typical grad course, but it’s 150 pages of Ulysses, capped off by Molly Bloom’s nearly punctuation-free, stream-of-consciousness monologue. To accommodate the move from eleven weeks to eight weeks, I basically cut Part I, the three opening episodes that focus on Stephen Dedalus, and begin in earnest with Leopold Bloom starting his day in Episode 4, “Calypso.” I provide a summary of those opening episodes and encourage students to read them even though they aren’t required per se.

I stress—again and again—that our purpose is not to unlock all the literary mysteries of the novel. Joyce specialists (of which I am decidedly not one) devote whole careers to the book, or only individual episodes. Rather, we want to achieve a basic understanding of what happens in the book, yes, but more importantly we want to lift the hood and see what Joyce was up to in individual episodes, and in the structure of the novel as a whole. In other words, we’re reading the novel as practicing writers, not as literary scholars. I hope to spark an interest in Joyce so that later in life students may feel warm and fuzzy enough about Ulysses to return to it, and to engage with other Joyce texts. Typically I do have a few students who’ve been bitten by the Joyce bug by the end of the session, and they ask for recommendations about where to go next, unaided. Finnegans Wake?, they sometimes ask. God no. I generally recommend Dubliners, and even more specifically “The Dead,” which is available in stand-alone critical editions if a reader is so inclined.

Another piece of advice I offer at the outset: The novel features a cast of thousands, and trying to synthesize all of the characters into your gray matter for easy recall later is probably one of the reading habits that leads to so many normally successful readers giving up in a hailstorm of self-condemnation. Instead, I say, there are just three main characters—Stephen, Bloom, and Molly—so keep an eye out for them. As long as you have a sense of what they do in the novel, from episode to episode, until you reach the Promised Land of “Yes” at the end of 18, then you’re doing just fine.

(We do get into some literary analysis, and one of the aspects we talk about is the novel’s unusually encyclopedic nature, and that Joyce didn’t intend, probably, for it to be read like a typical novel. There’s just too much data to try to hold in one’s head from start to finish. I will admit that in spite of reading the novel from stem to stern at least twice, and some sections multiple times, and even having published about it, plus taught it multiple times, it’s not uncommon for me to read an article or hear a presentation on the novel, and think, “That happens in Ulysses? Really? That sounds interesting.”)

Students are required to write weekly discussion posts based on the episodes, and I give them something concrete to glom onto. I share with them the famous Ulysses schemas, the Gilbert and the Linati, and ask them to write about how two of the elements operate in the week’s readings. Again, I don’t pretend that this an approach that will help them penetrate to the core of the novel’s meaning. Rather, as writers we’re looking at ways that Joyce tried to unify eighteen episodes, or chapters, that use increasingly experimental techniques of storytelling and shift point of view frequently. The schemas are one method, as are the running parallels with Homer’s Odyssey (which are often hard to spot even when one knows to look for them). Another unifying element is Joyce’s attention to chronology, with the narrative unfolding in more or less accurate time over 24 hours. Finally, there is Joyce’s attention to the point of obsession regarding the geography of Dublin in June 1904.

The novel is famous for its stream-of-consciousness narration, which nowadays isn’t exactly revolutionary. Joyce is, however, a master of the technique so a closer examination of almost any episode can lead to a fruitful discussion of how it’s working in detail. “Penelope,” of course, is the example par excellence of interior monologue. To mimic the randomness of one’s thought process, Joyce uses almost no punctuation for more than 30 pages, a section broken into only eight “sentences.” Nevertheless, we can isolate specific thoughts and images. How does Joyce manage it, without the traditional use of punctuation?

Every episode offers a multitude of techniques that could be of value to fiction writers, but in the interest of time here are some approaches that stand out to me.

Episode 4, “Calypso.” The opening three episodes, focused on Stephen Dedalus, establish a realistic chronological approach in the novel, from the start of Stephen’s day at the Martello tower to his meeting with Mr. Deasy to his walk along the strand. Then, abruptly, in this fourth episode time is reset to around 8:00 as we’re introduced to Leopold Bloom. From then on time in the novel unfolds consistently. The lesson: Don’t be afraid to break your own rules.

Episode 6, “Hades.” Bloom takes a carriage ride with three men who are also attending Paddy Dignam’s funeral. Bloom is both part of the group and yet set apart from his companions because of his Jewish heritage and being seen as a quasi-foreigner. This feeling, of being alone in a crowd, is exquisitely human and has obviously been explored by writers and artists throughout history, but no one does it better than Joyce in this iconic episode. The lesson: How to create a character who is both accepted into a social circle while simultaneously being excluded from it.

Episode 7, “Aeolus.” Bloom visits the Freeman newspaper offices, where he has a series of encounters, including with Stephen for the first time in the novel. This episode initiates Joyce’s more overtly experimental techniques as he breaks up the narrative with frequent headline-like insertions throughout. These headlines were a relatively late addition to the episode as it was published without them in The Little Review. Lesson: Don’t be afraid to play with narrative techniques and step from behind the curtain as the storyteller.

Episode 9, “Scylla and Charybdis.” Here Stephen expounds on his theory regarding Shakespeare’s Hamlet in the National Library with a group of fellow literati. His theory has been alluded to previously in the novel. Intertextuality—bringing other texts to bear on the narrative’s primary text—happens frequently in Ulysses. Indeed, Homer’s Odyssey serving as a structural apparatus is itself intertextual. But the use of Hamlet as a well-known literary figure (perhaps the best-known literary figure) to amplify the novel’s own concerns about parent-child relationships, among other issues, is worthy of careful study. Lesson: Bring other texts into conversation with your own narrative.

Episode 10, “Wandering Rocks.” In this scene our attention wanders between a host of different characters and objects. Very little happens in terms of advancing the novel’s plot, but Joyce brings together many of the characters and items of significance we’ve already encountered. Many see this odd episode—with its cinematically sweeping point of view—as a way to tie the earlier (more conventional) chapters of the novel to the later (more experimental) chapters. Lesson: Chapters can have principal objectives other than to advance the plot or evolve characterization; they can serve more purely artistic functions.

Episode 12, “Cyclops.” We join Bloom in Barney Kiernan’s pub, but from the point of view of a new anonymous, first-person narrator. Besides the switch in POV, Joyce also plays with various prose styles, including Irish mythological, legalistic, journalistic, and biblical. This episode, then, breaks two cardinal rules young writers often learn in workshop: to be consistent when it comes to (1) point of view and (2) voice. Without warning, Joyce switches from third- to first-person, and then injects some thirty different prose styles into the telling. Lesson: Know the rules so that you can break them; or, the only rule when it comes to telling a compelling story is that there are no rules.

Episode 14, “Oxen of the Sun.” Joyce takes the technique of Episode 12—the use of multiple prose styles—and goes even further by emulating the evolution of the English language, from its Latin/Germanic roots to Anglo-Saxon to Chaucer to Shakespeare to Defoe to Lamb, and many more. The plot advances at the Holles Street maternity hospital, but it does so via this history of the stages of the English language. Lesson: Have fun. Don’t be afraid to toy with voices and styles within the same piece.

Episode 15, “Circe.” We find ourselves in Nighttown, Dublin’s red-light district, but now the storytelling mode is dramatic. The episode unfolds as a play script, complete with character names and stage directions. The lesson: Go ahead. Begin in one mode and switch to another; then back again, or whatever you feel like doing.

Episode 17, “Ithaca.” Bloom and Stephen walk to Bloom’s residence, an important plot advancement, especially in light of the novel’s Odyssey subtext, but now it’s told via a series questions and answers, resembling, most say, either catechism or Socratic dialogue. Lesson: Why the heck not?

And like Bloom, we return to Episode 18 and No. 7 Eccles Street.

A quick word or two on other kinds of writing assignments one might assign, besides the weekly posts tied to the schemas. For their final project, I have students try their hand at one or more experimental techniques they’ve encountered in the book, creating their own original scene. It’s a two-part assignment. There’s the creative writing itself; then there’s an analytical element in which they identify the episodes and techniques they used as inspiration, quoting and citing from the novel as needed.

In the original eleven-week version of the course, I attempted an ambitious midterm paper. I had students access an episode as it first appeared in either The Little Review or The Egoist (using the Modernist Journals Project online), and compare it to the 1922 book version, identifying Joyce’s revisions and speculating as to why Joyce may have made the changes (almost always additions) that he did. That is, what did he gain through revision? I think it’s a terrific assignment, but, as I say, ambitious, and students were not terribly successful with it. It is perhaps too labor intensive when up against the amount of reading students have to do just to keep pace with the syllabus. So when we went to eight-week sessions, I dropped the assignment. My main purpose was to emphasize the importance of revision and how much care Joyce took in revising his work. I think it’s a potentially fruitful exercise, and maybe given a longer time frame and the right students, it could be a reasonable assignment. (By the way, I did the activity myself, based on Episode 9, “Scylla and Charybdis,” and the brief article was published at Academia Letters—if you want to see an example of what I have in mind with the assignment.)

It’s especially interesting to be teaching Ulysses during its centenary year—an event that will add even more resources from which one might draw (not that there was a shortage previously). If you teach in the right circumstances, I encourage you to consider a course on Ulysses. Or if not that large, loose, baggy monster, maybe another long, challenging text. I’ve thought about War and Peace, but in eight weeks that would be quite a battle. I welcome suggestions.  

Locating Our Common Humanity through Expressive Writing

Posted in Uncategorized by Ted Morrissey on May 24, 2018

The following was the opening keynote address at the Fifth International Conference on Language, Society and Culture in Asian Contexts, “Inclusiveness and Sustainability of Asian Societies,” Hue City, Vietnam, May 25 – 26, 2018.

Expressive Writing 14 - title frame

When the conference committee graciously invited me to speak to you, my first response was to go to the conference’s website and read about its overarching objective, which, I discovered, has to do with breaking down cultural barriers between nations. Even though I do not regularly travel between nations, it is an idea with which I am profoundly familiar. In the United States, the election of our current president has dramatized the theory that we have within our borders two distinct cultures, two dominant ideologies, two divisive world views which threaten to tear us into two separate nations. Or perhaps a better way of contextualizing the situation is to say that the wound caused by our Civil War which nearly broke us in two 150 years ago has never actually healed—and the current administration has merely made us painfully aware of what has always been true.

One can despair when one considers the seeming hopelessness of bridging political, ideological and cultural divides. Emotions run deep, and people are quick to anger and to become defensive when their worldview, when their belief system is challenged. In my classroom, I encourage my students to engage in discussions of the issues that divide them: gun control, immigration, gay rights, reproductive rights, among many others. I daresay that little progress appears to be made in convincing either side to alter their perceptions.

However, when my students access other aspects of their lives—when they move away from issues related to ideologies—they instantly have things in common. In fact, I would assert, they have everything in common. When I ask them to access their emotions—their joys, their disappointments, their frustrations, their achievements—they speak the same language, regardless of whether they are conservative or liberal, straight or gay, gun-owning or gun-controlling, gendered or gender-neutral, Pro-Life or Pro-Choice. That is to say, when they are asked to communicate expressively, students, above all else, are human.

Expressive Writing 1Which brings me at long last to my thesis: Through expressive writing, we can locate our common humanity. In other words, what divides us tends to be the product of intellect, while what unites us is our emotional responses to the world.

Allow me to take a moment to define some terms, especially to define them as I am using them in this presentation. The key term, obviously, is “expressive” writing, by which I mean writing that explores and communicates one’s emotional reaction to a given situation, generally a situation that one has experienced personally. I am adopting and somewhat adapting concepts discussed by James Britton, who identified three writing functions: transactional, expressive, and poetic. Briefly, “transactional” writing aims to inform and/or persuade the audience through the manipulation of primary- and secondary-source material (i.e. “research”), and in this transactional mode the writer’s self all but disappears. Transactional writing, in academic settings, takes the form of analyses and research-based reports, wherein personal experience, even in the form of anecdotal evidence, is frowned upon almost to the point of nonexistence, especially in the sciences but even in the humanities.

As Jeff Park remarks in his book Writing at the Edge, transactional writing is by far the dominant mode in the academy, while expressive writing “continues to be underdeveloped” (25). Returning to James Britton’s terms, the other modes besides “transactional” are “expressive” and “poetic.” Here things can become confusing. By “poetic,” Britton means something made out of language for language’s own sake but having little to do with writers’ expressing their feelings on the subject. Riddles, puns, acrostics, limericks may be examples of poetic language use in the way that Britton is defining the term.

Generally, though, poetry refers to writing that is highly personal and expressive. Therefore, when I use the phrase “expressive writing” I am using it as synonymous with what, in the U.S., we most often term “creative writing,” which includes fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction (or the personal essay). Adding to the confusion is the fact that writers can certainly create stories, novels, poems, and essays that are not especially expressive of their emotions. They may be trying to entertain, to titillate, or to expound on some subject, but they are not trying to communicate a personal experience and how it affected them on an emotional level.

Here, today, I am specifically advocating expressive writing as a means to breaking down or through cultural barriers.

Educators have long advocated reading as a key to developing empathy in students, including empathy for people of other cultures. I certainly agree that reading about other sorts of people can spark interest and understanding, which can in turn lead to empathy. More often that not in the U.S., however, reading literature is the sole means of encouraging empathy in the humanities. Empathy development is not bolstered routinely with expressive writing, and that, I believe, is a mistake. We should be having our students write expressively—and, importantly, sharing their writing through some means of publication (more on this in a moment).

While literary study may be only one component of fostering empathy, it is through literary study that we can most vividly see evidence of our common humanity, which is so often obscured by our politics and competing ideologies. I do not want to get too sidetracked here, but I am referring to the concept of archetypal narratives which seem to spring from a common past that transcends geography and culture. I give as just one example, in brief, the narrative of the woebegone sailor who, driven off course, finds himself and his men trapped inside the dwelling of a man-eating giant. Through his cleverness and courage, the sailor manages to blind the giant and escape the dwelling by hiding amongst the giant’s grazing flock. Whether one recognizes this as the story of Odysseus, or of Sinbad, or of the Man with No Legs depends on whether one is familiar with a Greek, Persian, or Korean literary tradition.

In essence, then, the tale of the woebegone sailor is foundational in Western, Middle Eastern, and Eastern cultures (to use Western distinctions)—a tale so ancient no one can cite its precise origin. These parts of the world are sharply divided when it comes to religions and political ideologies, yet the tale of the woebegone sailor must speak to us all: the disorientation and frustration of being lost, the primal fear of being trapped by a predator of superior power, the exhilaration of resourcefulness, and the joy of our life-preserving escape: all peoples, everywhere, can relate to these emotional registers in the common story.

Through expressive writing—that is, writing that accesses and communicates our emotions rather than our ideologies—students from diverse backgrounds can locate their common humanity, and see there is as much that unites us as there is that divides us.

Expressive Writing 2This topic is obviously complex, and I can only begin, here, to outline some of its component parts, but I will touch on the following areas: the theories which underpin the effectiveness of expressive writing for fostering empathy; the likelihood of students engaging in traumatic writing when given the opportunity to express themselves; some of the side benefits of expressive writing; the importance of publishing, and not just creating, the results of expressive writing; and some concrete classroom practices if one is inclined to use expressive writing in their curriculum.

Theories about expressive writing & empathy

First, then, how does expressive (or creative) writing create a connection between writer and reader that goes beyond, that goes deeper than other sorts of modes of communication? To respond, I turn to the work of Marcelle Freiman, who is especially interested in the cognitive connections between creative writers and their readers. Building on the work of cognitive scientists like Gerrig, Oatley and Djikic, Freiman asserts that “human long-term memory” is not only “‘based on memory’” but also “‘actively generates meaning’” (133). Thus, the act of writing helps writers to organize their thoughts and reconstruct memories—including all the associations those memories evoke—and it creates “an extended, externalised mental model” which readers are invited to enter. A well-wrought narrative can make a reader experience the story as if they had direct involvement in it. I am referring to the phenomenon of being lost in a story, to which nearly everyone can relate.

Freiman theorizes that the phenomenon is caused by the reader in essence “‘writing’ the text (in the mind) while reading” (134). Here she quotes Hawkes directly: “[Writers] thus involve us in the dangerous, exhilarating activity of creating our worlds now, together with the author, as we go along” (135, emphasis in the original). Freiman is suggesting that the relationship between writer and reader goes beyond being complementary into the realm of genuine partnership; the writer and reader are literally working together to create meaning. This process of shared responsibility in the text is true of all writing, says Freiman, but it has an enhanced dynamic when it comes to expressive writing: “This capacity for the writing of the creative or literary text occurs, perhaps, even more vividly ‘as experience’ because now the process involves imagination, including experiential representations of referents such as perceptions and emotions, in the language that writes what is imaginatively construed, to be read by a reader” (135). I want to underscore the words perceptions and emotions as these are key elements in an act of empathy. Understanding how others perceive their world and the emotions their perceptions elicit is absolutely vital to seeing people as people and not merely avatars for the ideologies they appear to represent.Expressive Writing 3

Likelihood of students writing about trauma

Let me move on to the question, why are students likely to write about trauma when given the opportunity to write expressively? When left to choose their own subject, many students will, of course, elect to write about happy things, which is valid. Writing about successes, about favorite memories, about the love of family and friends are all legitimate responses to an open-ended task to compose; and others can relate to positive experiences. But many, many students will choose to write about a traumatic experience in their lives, and it is due to the nature of trauma. The term “trauma” is slippery, and it is used to describe a vast array of life experiences; thus, depending on how widely or how narrowly one defines what constitutes “trauma,” the number of people who are suffering from some level of traumatic stress fluctuates up and down. Various studies identify between a quarter and three-quarters of the U.S. population as having had some kind of traumatic experience.1 People who have been traumatized tend to want to write about the experience, either explicitly or implicitly. Studies in the field of neuropsychology have suggested that trauma-related language dominates the linguistic functioning of victims.2 As MacCurdy observes, “Invariably writers gravitate to their difficult stories, the ones that cause the most pain and confusion . . .” (15).Expressive Writing 4

Because the academy does not privilege expressive writing, relatively few educators are trained to facilitate it, and, consequently, to respond to students’ writing about their traumatic experiences. When students elect to write about traumatic episodes in their lives, the complexities of the writing classroom multiply exponentially. The most immediate question educators must ask themselves is “Which is more important: the student’s acquisition of writing skills, or the student’s emotional welfare, which may be improved by engaging the traumatic event?” Before responding to my own question, I should say that communicating one’s trauma is a standard practice in therapy, either through one-on-one discussions with one’s therapist, in a group-therapy setting, or through writing (or some combination of these basic approaches). Once a teacher encourages students to engage their trauma in the classroom, the distinction between teacher and therapist can become murky. MacCurdy attempts to draw a distinction when she writes, “Teachers are advisers, mentors, and role models. Listening with compassion helps to fulfill those responsibilities and creates the trust needed for the student to delve into a difficult topic. . .  . However, teachers are not therapists. While a therapist may listen and then counsel, teachers listen and, if appropriate, suggest counseling and other professional services” (6).

I find no fault with MacCurdy’s assessment other than to say that she makes it plain why teaching—and perhaps especially teaching writing—is more art than science. Knowing when and how to respond to students’ work relies almost entirely on professional judgment; there are no clear-cut guidelines to follow, as much as we may wish at times there were.3

Benefits of expressive writing

So, writing about trauma can have therapeutic benefits for students. If one looks at that aspect of trauma writing—potential emotional benefits—certain pedagogical difficulties emerge regarding the sort of work students produce (in essence, how fragmentary or how complete it may be or must be), the ways in which it should be assessed (according to traditional guidelines for written work or by some other kind of rubric), and whether or not it should be shared with others (that is, published). How one responds to each of these issues may depend in large part on the end goal. If the end goal is for students to produce something that is most definitely going to be shared with others (versus something mainly for their own experiencing of the process), then the pedagogy must shift accordingly.Expressive Writing 5

Again, we are in the realm of art more than of science. The difference between students writing something only for themselves and students writing something which will be shared with others may lie in how the teacher contextualizes the act of writing and the possible benefits of sharing highly personal experiences. Allow me to say what may be needless to say: The best writing—the best art—is generally rooted in the highly personal experience. In order to create texts that are meaningful, and emotionally and intellectually engaging for readers, writers must be willing to reveal their most personal and their most private experiences and ideas. Marguerite MacRobert recommends that writers use techniques similar to those employed by method actors (à la Stanislavski). She says, “Writers are often spoken of as observers, and many writing workshops hone observation skills, but what Stanislavski says of acting could be emphasised in writing too: openness to experience as it occurs and being able to access emotional memories are crucial writing abilities. . . .” (353).

I will add anecdotally that when I took fiction writing workshops with the novelist Kent Haruf, in the opening class session Kent would always ask us to share something personal about ourselves that we had never shared with anyone else. The point of his exercise was that to be effective fiction writers we must be willing and able to share our most personal thoughts and experiences with our readers. Holding back leads to writing that is less than it could be. This sort of openness may seem like a tall order to expect of young students, but recall that traumatized students generally want to write about their traumatic experiences. In fact, they need to write about them. The pedagogical trick is not to get them to write personally, but to be willing to share their personal writing with others: to instill them with confidence, and to teach them that their sharing can benefit others, namely their readers.Expressive Writing 6

Given our setting and the conference’s overarching mission it is vital to note that expressive writing can transcend language barriers, and in fact can benefit from them. That is, students writing in languages other than their primary language (in English for instance) can be beneficial to the expressive-writing process in several ways. Here I will turn to the work of Owens and Brien, who developed a project in which international students attending universities in Australia wrote expressively in English with the goal of producing a published journal. Too often, international students’ language skills are viewed as a weakness or an obstacle to be overcome; however, Owens and Brien, among others (I included), advocate seeing these students’ language skills as a strength and an opportunity. They write, “[P]erceptions about the English skills of [Learners of English as an Alternative (or Additional) Language] have serious implications for large numbers of students, teachers, employers and, more broadly, the higher education industry. . . . [R]ecognising these learners as linguistically complex (rather than deficient) and finding new and enhanced methods to support their language needs . . . could transform both university practices and the students’ experience of those practices” (361-362). In particular, Owens and Brien advocate the use of creative writing as a way to foster these learners’ acquisition of alternative languages and to ease their assimilation into unfamiliar environments.Expressive Writing 7

In Owens and Brien’s project, they found that international students were drawn to writing about the difficulties associated with cultural assimilation. While writing in a language other than their mother tongue did present some challenges, there were also numerous benefits. They write, “[Alternative Language speakers] have both less (English) and more (languages other than English) lexical-syntactic-semantic knowledge than monolingual English speakers. They rely on a more restricted English resource but have alternative language options available to express meaning. . . . So, whilst mother tongue speakers may use their language creatively in response to situational characteristics, Alternative Language speakers may use English more creatively . . .” (362). What is more, the way Alternative Language speakers approach language may lead to particularly poetic constructions, say Owens and Brien. As someone who has taught Alternative Language speakers in creative writing workshops (especially speakers of Asian languages and, most often, speakers of Chinese), I can attest that even beginning creative writers can compose some startlingly beautiful phrases and images in English because of their knowledge of multiple languages, not in spite of it.Expressive Writing 8

Importance of sharing & publishing

It definitely goes without saying that if expressive writing is going to help break down cultural barriers, it must be shared across borders (both geographic and ideologic), which is where publication enters the discussion. Though discussing their project in the microcosm of their university settings, Owens and Brien found that Alternative Language students writing expressively benefited both the writers themselves and their audience: “It allows readers, such as academic staff as well as other students, to gain insight into the cross-cultural experience and develop greater empathy for the cultural sojourner” (369). Moreover, “the act of authoring such texts” can be “empowering” on multiple levels: “Promoting the creative and unique English language capacities of [Alternative Language students] . . . across English speaking host-communities, can help . . . build empathy, understanding and appreciation in a language context where they are conventionally de-valued” (369). Moreover, Jess-Cooke believes that students’ producing “a completed piece of work is a significant part of building self-esteem, and therefore contributes to wellbeing” (254).Expressive Writing 9

Fortunately, we live in a time when sharing writing (or video or audio) across the globe is relatively simple. Material can be posted to the Web of course. Texts can be made available to download to various sorts of e-readers (Kindle, etc.), and print-on-demand options make physically published anthologies readily and cheaply available via outlets like Amazon among many others. Speaking as a publisher and author, the challenge is not to make students’ writing available across cultural boundaries, but rather how to help others realize it is available in the flood of material that is published, one way or another, every day. Some estimates put the number of new book titles alone released each year in the neighborhood of a million. On any given day, several thousand new titles may become available. Unfortunately I have not solved this conundrum. I would say, as with any project, the way to begin, at least, is to start small. That is, micro-target specific audiences, perhaps via university networking opportunities, as afforded via conferences like this one. Work with colleagues in other countries to produce expressive writing and share it beyond physical borders. Perhaps combine the work of students from several countries in a single anthology to be shared and distributed amongst the project participants. Students’ texts could be captured via audio recordings and video performances, adding additional contextual layers to the communicated experiences.

Concrete classroom practices

I would like to end with a practical suggestion for a writing prompt. I have found that students respond quite effectively to what I call “A Moment of Clarity” narrative essay. I ask them to write about a time when they came to understand something about themselves or about their world due to a specific event in their lives. (I have provided the specific assignment and pre-drafting activity as an appendix to this presentation.) Some students write about positive things in their lives: learning the importance of teamwork or dedication, discovering what they want to do with their lives, embracing their spiritual selves, accepting their true sexuality, and so on. More students, though, tend to write about traumatic, life-transforming experiences: the death of a loved one, a near-death experience of their own, the separation of their parents, the crushing loss of a best friend or first girlfriend or boyfriend.

Allow me to share some brief excerpts of papers my students wrote this past year as a response to the “Moment of Clarity” prompt (the students have granted their permission, and I have obscured their identities):

Expressive Writing 10From a student whose boyfriend was driving recklessly and lost control of his car: “The convertible Mustang [car] flipped, pinning me underneath the vehicle. The only thing that kept me from getting my head smashed was the headrest that held it up just enough. I needed to stay calm. I couldn’t focus on anything else but the sound of the blood dripping on the ground. I tried to move my right arm and couldn’t.”

Expressive Writing 11From a student who struggled with the death of her grandmother after a long illness: “Now I understand that death occurs in everyone’s life and everyone is affected by it differently. She was in pain because of the cancer and all of the medicine she was taking. Seeing her in the casket was different because she looked peaceful and beautiful compared to the cancer’s effect on her. I have to let her go because I love her and she would not want me to be afraid or sad. She would want me to strive and achieve my goals and to live my life.”

Expressive Writing 12From a student who attempted suicide: “I spent my teenage years begging myself at night not to give up, not to kill myself. My first attempt at suicide was in 2015. I remember sitting in my room and the feeling rushed upon me. ‘You’re not good enough . . . you don’t deserve to live . . . just do it.’ I felt numb in that moment. I didn’t feel like a person. I got up and grabbed the bottle of pills. I begged myself to get help and go get my mother, but all I could think about was swallowing the pills and not being here anymore.”

Expressive Writing 13From a student who has given up her Christian faith: “I think how many Native Americans think. How we’re all connected and that you should put out what you want in return. I feel life is sacred, but so is the afterlife. The two worlds co-exist with one another. Death doesn’t mean the end of life, it’s just the beginning.”

These narratives were written by young people living in a small town in the heart of the United States, but I daresay they express feelings and concerns and issues that young people—that all people—face daily, no matter their culture, no matter their country, no matter their ideology.

Notes

  1. See Bessel A. Van der Kolk, Alexander C. McFarlane, and Lars Weisaeth, editors. Traumatic Stress: The Effects of Overwhelming Experience on Mind, Body, and Society. Guilford, 2007, p. 5.
  2.  See Jennifer J. Vasterling, and Chris R. Brewin, editors. Neuropsychology of PTSD: Biiological, Cognitive, and Clinical Perspectives, Guilford, 2005. In particular see Joseph I. Constans. “Information-Processing Biases in PTSD,” Vasterling and Brewin, pp. 105-130.
  3. See Ted Morrissey. Trauma Theory As a Method for Understanding Literary Texts: The Psychological Basis of Postmodern Hermeneutics, Edwin Mellen, 2016. In particular see Chapter 7, “Pedagogical Implications and Conclusions,” pp. 185-224.

Works Cited

Freiman, Marcelle. “A ‘Cognitive Turn’ in Creative Writing — Cognition, Body and Imagination.” New Writing: International Journal for the Practice and Theory of Creative Writing, vol. 12, no. 2, 2015, pp. 127-142.

Jess-Cooke, Carolyn. “Should Creative Writing Courses Teach Ways of Building Resilience?” New Writing: International Journal for the Practice and Theory of Creative Writing, vol. 12, no. 2, 2015, pp. 249-259.

MacCurdy, Marian Mesrodian. The Mind’s Eye: Image and Memory in Writing about Trauma. U of Massachusetts P, 2007.

MacRobert, Marguerite. “Exploring an Acting Method to Contain the Potential Madness of the Creative Process: Mental Health and Writing with Emotion.” International Journal for the Practice and Theory of Creative Writing, vol. 9, no. 3, 2012, pp. 349-360.

Owens, Alison R., and Donna L. Brien. “Writing Themselves: Using Creative Writing to Facilitate International Student Accounts of Their Intercultural Experience.” New Writing: International Journal for the Practice and Theory of Creative Writing, vol. 11, no. 3, 2014, pp. 359-374.

Park, Jeff. Writing at the Edge: Narrative and Writing Process Theory. Peter Lang, 2005.

Fictionalizing the Life and Voice of Washington Irving

Posted in June 2015 by Ted Morrissey on June 13, 2015

The following paper — “Fictionalizing the Life and Voice of Washington Irving” — was presented at the North American Review Bicentennial Conference at the University of Northern Iowa, in Cedar Falls, which ran from June 11 to 13, 2015. This paper was part of the “Voice and Point of View” panel on June 13. Other papers presented were “Expanding the Powers of First-Person Narration” by Buzz Mauro and “The Art of Narrative Telling: Transforming Cheever’s Voice” by Grant Tracey. In addition to presenting, I also moderated the panel.

Portrait of Washington Irving by John Wesley Jarvis, 1809

Portrait of Washington Irving by John Wesley Jarvis, 1809

I’m here today to talk about writing my novel An Untimely Frost, which I worked on between about 2006 (I think) and 2011, eventually publishing it via my own press, Twelve Winters, in 2014—Twelve Winters Press, by the way, has a table at the conference. The inspiration for the novel was Washington Irving’s rumored courtship of Mary Shelley.  It seemed to me that a romantic relationship between the author of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and the author of Frankenstein could make for an intriguing chemistry.  I didn’t know where or when I’d learned of that rumor, and I wasn’t especially interested in verifying its accuracy because I decided very early on that I wasn’t going to write a fictionalized biography of Irving and Shelley and their time together.  Rather, I was going to use them as sources of inspiration and an armory of period details as needed. [As noted, I didn’t research the actual relationship between Irving and Shelley when writing the novel; however, in preparing this talk I came across this rare bookThe Romance of Mary W. Shelley, John Howard Payne and Washington Irving (1907)–which would be of interest to anyone who wanted to know more about the famous authors’ “romance.”]

an-untimely-frost-front-cover

For an earlier project, which resulted in the novella Weeping with an Ancient God, I wrote a fictionalized biography of author Herman Melville’s real-life experiences among cannibals in 1842.  I was dedicated to staying true to the established details of Melville’s life and times, which made for a challenging artistic endeavor.  I like to believe that the novella turned out pretty well, but oftentimes I did feel hemmed in by reality and by Melville’s biography.  Not to mention, real life rarely provides us with a satisfying narrative arc, which tends to handicap a novelist.  It’s a bit like running in a three-legged race.  It’s an experience all its own, but there’s no helping that the entire time one is keenly aware of how much easier it would be to race the usual two-legged way.

weeping-with-an-ancient-god-front-cover

Thus, when I began writing about Irving and Shelley, I had no intention of shackling my creativity to their real lives.  I began by concocting fictional names for them, eventually ending up with “Jefferson Wheelwright” and “Margaret Haeley.”  I also decided early on that Jefferson Wheelwright would be my first-person narrator.  I obviously had some familiarity with Washington Irving—and I’d taught “Sleepy Hollow” a couple of times in a college course—but I didn’t feel that I knew him and, more importantly, his voice well enough to create my Jefferson Wheelwright persona.  To prepare, I did read several biographical sketches of Irving and more of his fictional stories.  However, what I really wanted to steep my brain in was his real-life speaking voice, and the closest I could come to that, given that he lived in the early and mid nineteenth century, was to study his published letters.

I got hold of two collections in particular, both edited by Stanley T. Williams.  One collection, brought out by Harvard University Press, concerns Irving’s letters “from England and the Continent, 1821-1828,” and the other, brought out by Yale University Press, consists of his letters “from Sunnyside and Spain,” spanning the years 1840-1845.  I made use of both collections, and in fact one of the epigraphs for the novel comes from a Madrid 1842 letter.  However, I found the letters from the earlier period to be more helpful since they correspond more closely to the time frame and the geography of my novel’s setting.

I culled the letters, along with biographical information, for two sorts of material.  First, while I wasn’t writing a fictionalized biography based on Irving’s life, I was open to transferring and transforming real-life details from Irving to my creation, Wheelwright.  Second, and more vital, I wanted to capture as nearly as possible Irving’s narrative style.

Without reading through the biographical notes and letters in their entirety again, it’s difficult for me to recall all that I borrowed in terms of real-life details and events.  I did skim through the letters in preparation for this presentation, and I was surprised in a couple of instances regarding details that in my recollection I had wholly made up, but in actuality stemmed from my research.

One of the character details that I know I extracted from Irving’s letters had to do with a skin condition of his legs and feet that plagued him in the 1821-28 period.  For instance, he writes from Germany on August 20, 1822:  “I grew very lame in trudging about the dutch [sic] towns, and unluckily applied a recipe given me by old Lady Liston (may god bless her, and preserve her from her own prescriptions!)—it played the vengeance with me [. . .] I could scarcely put my feet to the ground & bear my weight upon them [. . .]” (“Wi[e]sbaden” 19).  Elsewhere Irving talks about seeking treatment from various physicians.  I decided early on in the writing process that some sort of foot condition would be part of my Jefferson Wheelwright’s situation.  I guess I vaguely thought it might have some metaphorical value, connecting to his fear that he was not evolving, not moving forward, as a writer and artist.  In An Untimely Frost, Wheelwright requests the aid of a London physician, Dr. Carter.  In Chapter 2, I write,

On the first morning, he listened to my complaint while touching and gently kneading my feet and toes, which were blotchy red, except around the toenails where the skin was a vibrant purple.  Spots on my feet were pained to the touch while my toes were dead numb. [. . .] The good doctor said it was a circulation problem; he said that even though exercise irritated my feet, rest was counterproductive, that we must increase the blood flow to nourish the nerve fibers.” (11)

In reality, Irving was laid up for days and even weeks with bouts of his “cutaneous condition,” but I didn’t think that would make for an especially exciting narrative, to have Jefferson Wheelwright lying around his hotel room for days on end nursing his feet, so I had Dr. Carter prescribe exercise.  Carter becomes an important character in the novel—although when I first introduced him in the second chapter I had no idea whether it would be a cameo appearance or lead to a larger role.

In addition to physical details I also borrowed one of Washington Irving’s personality traits, namely his lack of interest and acumen when it came to business affairs.  He let his elder brothers manage the family’s business interests, while he focused on his literary aspirations.  In my novel, I write:

So far I was having a splendid time lounging in the gigantic bed at The Saint Georges [hotel], drinking the black-black Italian coffee, and scribbling my tale.  I even felt a brief—brief, mind you—pang of guilt at the idea that this is what I did to earn my keep in the world.  Like many of the Wheelwright men, I’d tried my hand at business, but to dismal results.  I simply do not have a head for numbers and inventories and so on—I can conjure whole worlds with my pen, yet adding a column of numbers and arriving at the correct result seemed beyond me (I believe because midway I would lose interest and begin daydreaming of haunted castles on lonely, wind-swept cliffs). (10)

There were numerous details from Irving’s life, especially his writing life, that I commandeered for my purposes, but even more important was capturing Irving’s narrative style—and in particular the style he used in his letters to friends and family, which was somewhat different, on the whole, than his published authorial voice, such as in The Sketch Book and Bracebridge Hall stories.

I wrote a brief essay about trying to capture Irving’s voice for Glimmer Train Press’s Writers Ask series (it appeared in number 54 and I reprinted it in An Untimely Frost).  Since it is brief and to the point at hand, I would like to insert it here in its entirety:

Like the vast majority of writers who have come out of a university creative writing program, I was taught to write contemporary literary fiction.  However, for over a decade now, I’ve been mainly attracted to historically based narrative, both as a reader and as a writer.  When we think of writers tackling a story or novel set in another time and another place, we imagine them doing extensive research on things like people, on the chronology of events, on various aspects of the material world they are attempting to fabricate—and we tend to imagine rightly.  For me, though, there is another sort of research that must go on as well, the results of which are not as easy to spot in a story as, say, an infamous assassination or an obsolete gadget; and that is researching the structure of language itself.  It can be a nebulous term, but what I’m most interested in is a setting’s voice.

Voice should contribute to the ring of authenticity, to be sure, but, more than that, voice can actually compel the movement of the narrative; voice can shape its structure.  William H. Gass spoke to this phenomenon in a 1976 interview for The Paris Review, saying that “word resemblance leads you on [as a writer], not form.  So you’ve really got a musical problem, certain paragraphs you are arranging, and you imagine you are orchestrating the flow of feelings from one thing to another.”  Gass summed up by saying, “Once you get your key signature, the theme inherent in the notes begins to emerge:  the relationship between art and life and all that.”  Gass, author of some of the most admired books in the English language, suggests that the physical structure of the words on the page—and the meanings, feelings, moods that they convey—help guide the writer to, essentially, everything else in the narrative:  plot development, characterization, theme, setting. . . .

The importance of this sort of research in historically based fiction is nicely illustrated in Charles Frazier’s highly acclaimed novel Cold Mountain, which is set in Civil War-era Appalachia.  In an interview available online, Frazier said, “I wanted the language of the book to create a sense of otherness, of another world, one that the reader doesn’t entirely know.”  Frazier did library research regarding the material world he was creating, finding “words for tools and processes and kitchen implements that are almost lost words.”  Beyond that, however, he was interested in “getting a sense of the particular use of language in that region, the rhythm of it.”  Frazier culled period letters and diaries for much of his information, but he also had the benefit of having actually heard “that authentic Appalachian accent” when he was a child.

For my own writing I’ve been attracted to more distant times and places, and as such have not had the benefit of hearing period speakers so printed examples of voice have been my guideposts.  Nevertheless, the feel and rhythm of the language can filter into one’s writing by paying attention to the linguistic structures.  For my current project I’ve been creating a first-person narrator based on the American author Washington Irving.  It isn’t a fictionalized biography.  It’s more that Irving’s persona has been the primary inspiration for my protagonist.  When I first became interested in the project, I tracked down an obscure collection of Irving’s letters that he wrote between 1821 and 1828.  The book has been invaluable to me in my effort to develop an effective narrative voice.

Simply put, in Irving’s day a well-read New Englander structured the language in ways that sound quite foreign—quite exotic even—to us now.  Take, for example, this letter written at “Beycheville,” France, October 17, 1825:

I have had something of a dull bilious affection of the system which has clung to me for more than two weeks past. . . .  The greater part of Mrs Guestiers household, who have lately removed here, are unwell—I have tried to shake off my own morbid fit by exercise—I have been out repeatedly hunting, as there were two packs of hounds in the neighborhood, but though I have taken violent exercise I do not feel yet reinstated by it. (50)

The terms are spectacular, yes—heaven help anyone who contracts “a dull bilious affection” and Irving’s reference to “violent exercise” makes me think of junior high P.E. class—but even more meaningful to my eye and ear are the syntactic rhythms.  Today one might say, “I’ve been feeling sick for a couple of weeks,” but for Irving the “affection of the system” has “clung” to him “for more than two weeks past.”  The structure implies that his sense of unwell-being is a sort pernicious companion of whom he can’t quite rid himself, in spite of his taking “violent exercise”—giving the act of exercise a physicality, as if it were an item from the apothecary’s pantry.

Yet I have no particular interest in my protagonist’s contracting a bilious affection or partaking of violent exercise.  Rather I want the structure of the language.  I want to tell my own tale, but I want to form the sentences as Irving might have had he written of the same events nearly two centuries ago.  I normally keep the book of Irving’s letters on my nightstand, and every so often I open to a random page and read awhile, perhaps a few pages but often as little as a sentence or two, because I’m not searching for information:  I want to keep retracing the sentence rhythms in my brain, like wagon wheels along a worn track, so that when I sit down to write, the words flow as naturally in the direction of his prose style as if he (or someone like him) were composing them himself.  (I must go now—I feel the onset of a bilious affection.)

There haven’t been a lot of reivews of the novel, and the ones that have appeared are somewhat mixed—but the reviewers seem to appreciate the narrative voice that I was able to create.  For example, Anne Drolet writes in the North American Review:  “Morrissey styles Wheelwright’s voice after the patterns and idioms of 19th-century British speech, and that choice lulls the reader into the historical setting” (47).  I presume being lulled into a setting is better than being jarred into one.  Cécile Sune says in her blog Book Obsessed:  “The writing is beautiful and elaborate, and is a testament to the research Ted Morrissey conducted for this book . . . As a result, it feels like a Victorian novel”—ultimately, though, she only gave it three out of five stars on Amazon (damn it).  And most recently William Wright writes for the Chicago Book Review:  “There are moments of true brilliance in An Untimely Frost.  It reads like it was written by a post-modernist emulating Henry James [I like that line], which proves to be an intriguing combination”—but Wright concludes with “Perhaps with more ruthless editing, the novel could have been a triumph.  As it stands, it was a wonderful idea that wasn’t quite pulled off.”

I’ll tell you what, critics are hard to please.

My five years floating around in the fictional consciousness of Washington Irving was an interesting artistic experiment, and it really stretched me as a writer.  When I finished with the novel, I began writing a series of interconnected short stories—each in third-person, with shifting points of view, and set for the most part in an unnamed Midwestern village in the 1950s.  I finished the twelfth and final story just a few weeks ago, and eventually I’ll be bringing them out in a collection titled Crowsong for the Stricken.  I’m considering other long-term writing projects at the moment, and one idea is to return to nineteenth-century London, but not Jefferson Wheelwright.  Never say never, but I believe I’ve said all I care to say in the voice and persona of Mr. Wheelwright.

Works Cited

Drolet, Anne.  Rev. of An Untimely Frost, by Ted Morrissey.  North American Review Fall 2014 (299.4):  47.  Print.

“An Interview with Charles Frazier.”  BookBrowse [c. 1997].  Web.  9 June 2015.

Morrissey, Ted.  An Untimely Frost.  Sherman, Ill.:  Twelve Winters Press, 2014.  Print.

—-.  “Researching the Rhythms of Voice.”  Writers Ask #54.  Portland, Ore.:  Glimmer Train Press.  Print.

Sune, Cécile.  Rev. of An Untimely Frost, by Ted Morrissey.  Book Obsessed 10 Oct. 2014.  Web.

Williams, Stanley T., ed.  Letters from Sunnyside and Spain by Washington Irving.  New Haven, Conn.:  Yale University Press, 1928.  Print.

—-.  Washington Irving and the Storrows:  Letters from England and the Continent, 1821-1828.  Cambridge, Mass.:  Harvard University Press, 1933.  Print.

Wright, William.  “A Hot and Cold ‘Frost.’”  Rev. of An Untimely Frost, by Ted Morrissey.  Chicago Book Review 18 May 2015.  Web.

(Note that the portrait of Washington Irving was obtained via Wikipedia at this link.)