In the words of the soldiers themselves

85thCover1_Vol1As much as possible, I wanted the men of the 85th Pennsylvania to tell their story in their own words. For this reason, this book includes quotations from 50 men in the regiment. As the war progressed, men from the regiment were killed or went home, reducing their overall size as well as the number of potential sources. (This was especially true in the cases of Lieutenant Colonel Henry A. Purviance and Private Robert Roddy, newspapermen in the 85th Pennsylvania who wrote detailed accounts for readers back home during the first two years of the war). I therefore turned to accounts written by men from their brigade or division. I also quote from Confederate soldiers, the Official Records, and period newspapers. The stories of the men in regiments with whom the fought and the stories of the men they fought against help to tell the story of the 85th Pennsylvania.

The quotations included by the author are often paragraph size or larger. Using large blocks of quotations is normally not recommended in writing history. Despite recommendations to use shorter quotations, I have chosen to quote the men in more substantial segments because I believe it adds context to their experiences. Furthermore, I like the way the soldiers of that era expressed themselves with the written word.

This narrative tries to follow the soldiers’ stories as they lived and tried to survive the war. For example, many men recorded their thoughts about Confederate land mines left in the road as they retreated from Williamsburg, Virginia in 1862. Not many men were wounded by these “torpedoes,” including none in the 85th Pennsylvania. Nonetheless, the author included a half dozen or more stories of the soldier’s reactions to these “infernal machines” to supply the reader varying perspectives from the men as they trudged up the Virginia peninsula. The author often has included multiple accounts of the same event, such as how Fort Wagner (South Carolina) was booby-trapped by Confederates just before their departure in September of 1863.

In each chapter concerning a battle or campaign, the author will provide an overview of the event, and then go back and tell the story using the words of the participants.

Although the 85th Pennsylvania was not involved in turning points events such as Antietam, Fredericksburg, or Vicksburg, they nonetheless had many fascinating experiences. Some of them helped Professor Thaddeus Lowe launch his celebrated observation balloon in 1862 during the Peninsula Campaign. Others in the regiment were cared for by Clara Barton, the war’s most famous nurse. They were also stationed with African American troops in Charleston and were in reserve for the famed assault on Fort Wagner in 1863 led by the 54th Massachusetts. They experienced trench warfare at both Charleston and around Petersburg. Some, including, Stephen Clendaniel, were involved in a large exchange of prisoners in 1864. And finally, some others including John Clendaniel were in the front lines for the surrender of Lee’s army on April 9, 1965 at Appomattox.

This book is meant as a tribute to John Clendaniel, Stephen Clendaniel, and the rest of that group of a thousand or so western Pennsylvania farm boys who served their nation and their cause with determination and honor.

Dan Clendaniel

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For more information about the 85th Pennsylvania, visit Dan’s blog, The 85th Pennsylvania in the Civil War.

John Allan Wyeth among the literati of Rapallo

rapallo, 1926

An obituary of John Allan Wyeth’s niece, Jane McLean who—with her parents (Florence Sims Wyeth & Alan McLean, the sister and brother-in-law of JA Wyeth), shared a household with Wyeth during the late 1920s and early ‘30s in Rapallo, Italy—has just recently come to light. The obituary contains one extraordinary sentence:

Educated in Italy from the age of seven, Miss McLean benefitted from a tutorial education in the liberal arts, focusing on languages, literature, history and architecture. Among her teachers were Max Beerbohm, Ezra Pound, W.B. Yeats and Gerhart Hauptmann, as well as her uncle John Wyeth.

This accords with a story about Wyeth which was passed on by Wyeth’s family to Dana Gioia, who noted in his introductory essay for the re-printing of Wyeth’s poems in 2008, that Wyeth had been friends with Ezra Pound during his years in Rapallo.  It also accords with a sentence in one of Wyeth’s letters from the early 1970s to a friend, where he mentioned in passing that his neice Jane owned a book inscribed to her by Max Beerbohm, and that she had been friends with Beerbohm’s niece for many years, the actress Viola Tree.

It seems probable that Jane’s uncle John, given his excellent education in languages, history and the arts, would have designed the curriculum and engaged the tutors.

That Wyeth could have arranged such a roster of literary lions—which included two Nobel Laureates—to tutor a single young girl, might challenge anyone’s credulity. On the other hand, Wyeth would have known very well who each of these men were, and probably how best to approach them. Perhaps he obtained a letter of introduction from his old school-mate Edmund Wilson. More likely he simply struck up a conversation with one of them on the terrazza of the café at the Albergo Rapallo, where Ezra and Dorothy Pound took many of their meals, and which soon became a gathering place for the local literati. Once befriended by any one of them, Wyeth would have had access to the others, for they all knew one another.

Yeats and Pound had of course known one another for decades, as had Yeats and Beerbohm. Pound and Hauptmann met in Rapallo and became good friends; then sometime in 1929 the Pounds held a dinner in the Albergo Rapallo for the purpose of introducing Hauptmann and Yeats to one another. Hauptmann and Beerbohm met in Rapallo in 1927, and Beerbohm would eventually marry Hauptmann’s personal secretary, Elizabeth Jungmann, after the death of his first wife.  Beerbohm and Pound knew one another, though Beerbohm had his reservations about Pound, and tended to keep his distance, which Pound respected by never calling on Beerbohm alone. But they still socialized on occasion, such as when Pound took his houseguest, T.S. Eliot, to Beerbohm’s for tea.

Max Beerbohm had retired to Rapallo in 1910; Pound came in 1924; Yeats in 1928. Hauptmann began spending his winters in Rapallo in 1925. The McLeans arrived in 1921, and Wyeth had joined them by 1926, or possibly earlier.

The Beerbohms had a villa, “Villino Chiaro,” on the Via Aurelia high above the town, with a view toward the sea. The Pounds lived on the seafront in the Albergo Rapallo, and the Yeats lived an easy walk from there, in the Palazzo Cardile, at 34 Corso Colombo. The Hauptmanns wintered in a villa at 23 Via Avenaggi, beginning in 1925, but later lived in other villas, ending finally at the Hotel Excelsior. The McLeans and Wyeth lived in the Villa Boselli (location uncertain).

The customary arrangement in such matters was for the tutor to conduct his lessons under the watchful eye of the student’s parents, or at least under their roof, but it is difficult to see what in such a stodgy arrangement would appeal to Ezra Pound, the elder Beerbohm, or the two aging Nobel Laureates.

A very different sort of teaching arrangement is described by James Laughlin, who visited Pound in Rapallo in 1934 to attend what was known locally as the “Ezuversity,” which was simply Ezra Pound expounding on various subjects to an informal gathering of friends and “students.” As described by Laughlin, the “class” might begin over lunch in Albergo Rapallo café, move up five flights to the Pounds’ apartment overlooking the bay, and then move out into the town to various locations ranging from the local tennis club, to the salita leading up to Sant’ Ambrogio, to one of several area beaches, or even aboard a small boat gliding over the Gulf of Tigullio.

Jane would have been 20 in 1934, and it is not difficult to imagine her as one of Pound’s informal, but attentive “students,” accompanied, perhaps, by her equally attentive “Uncle John.”

Jane McLean remained in Italy until 1940.  During WWII, she served in the Office of Strategic Services (OSS, the precursor of the CIA), in the Psychological Warfare Political Intelligence section. After the war she worked in the public relations office of Shell Oil International as a liaison to the United Nations Economic and Social Council. She served as a trustee of the Leopold Schepp Foundation for many years. She was a painter, a gardener, and published a book of poems, and she remained very close to her Uncle John for the rest of his life.

John Allan Wyeth’s book of wartime poems, This Man’s Army, a War in Fifty-odd Sonnets, was published in New York in 1928. It was almost certainly composed during his years in Rapallo. (See Dana Gioia’s essay, “The Unknown Soldier: An Introduction to the Poetry of John Allan Wyeth,” for his speculations on how Wyeth’s sonnets may have been influenced by Pound’s modernist poetics).

Until further research uncovers more specific information, or additional letters surface from either Wyeth or his neice, Jane, one can only speculate about the actual circumstances of Jane’s Rapallo education, or Wyeth’s  conversations with Pound, Yeats, Beerbohm, Hauptmann, or any of the other highly literate denizens of Rapallo in the late 1920s and early ‘30s.

BJ Omanson

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S O U R C E S

~~~Bacigalupo, Massimo. “Tigullio Itineraries: Ezra Pound and Friends.” Quaderni di Palazzo Serra 15 (2008): 373-447.

~~~ Behrman, S.N.  Portrait of Max: An Intimate Memoir of Sir Max Beerbohm. (NY: Random House, 1960).

~~~ Carpenter, Humphrey.  A Serious Character: the Life of Ezra Pound. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1988).

~~~Foster, R.F.  W. B. Yeats: A Life. Volume II: The Arch-Poet, 1915-1939. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003).

~~~ Gioia, Dana. “The Unknown Soldier: An Introduction to the Poetry of John Allan Wyeth,.” the introductory essay to John Allan Wyeth’s This Man’s Army: A War in Fifty-Odd Sonnets.  “The Joseph M. Bruccoli Great War Series,” Matthew Bruccoli, Series Editor.  (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 2008).

~~~ Hall, John.  Max Beerbohm: A Kind of Life. (Yale University Press, 2002).

~~~ Laughlin, James. Pound as Wuz: Recollections and Interpretations. (Peter Owen, Ltd., 1989).

~~~ Willhelm, J.J. Ezra Pound: The Tragic Years, 1925-1972. (University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1994).

Reading & Reception by Jared Carter at Fruitlands Museum in Harvard, Massachusetts, on July 22nd

Fruitlands_croppedA poetry reading by Jared Carter, followed by an informal reception, will take place on Monday, July 22nd at 7:30 in the Wayside Community Gallery in the Fruitlands Museum, located at 102 Prospect Hill Road in Harvard, Massachusetts.

Fruitlands was the short-lived agrarian utopian community established in the 1840s by the Transcendentalists, Bronson Alcott and Charles Lane.

Jared Carter recently published a collection of poetry and photographs with Monongahela Books (The Land Itself, 2019) and a selection of poems from three decades with the University of Nebraska Press (The Darkened Rooms of Summer, 2014).  Both books will be available for purchase at the reading.

Carter received the Walt Whitman Award for his first book, Work, for the Night is Coming, and the Poet’s Prize (awarded annually for the best book of verse by a living American poet), for his second book, After the Rain. He has received literary fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim Foundation, and was a recipient of the Indiana Governor’s Arts Award.

Additional information about the reading and reception may be found on the Fruitlands Museum website.

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See also two other posts about Jared Carter on this blog, What is left after nothing is left and Jared Carter and American regionalism.

What is left after nothing is left


TheLandItself_cover7_reduced

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Summit

Small towns. A few houses and a general store.
The map might show only one road going through,
but if you keep driving around long enough,
you begin to understand how they’re connected.
There are back roads running in all directions.
You just have to get out and look for them.

People living out there have known each other
for a long time. They still have family reunions
in late August, on plank tables under the trees.
Places with names like Hadley, and Springtown,
and Coatesville. Most of them manage to keep
a grain elevator going, maybe a post office.

I’m a real-estate appraiser. These days
I spend a lot of time out looking at farms.
I’ve got a bunch of good maps in my car;
old ones, too. You don’t want to come back
to town and admit you couldn’t even find
the place you were looking for. Or got lost.

One day last September I was driving along
a gravel road between Clayton and Hadley, using
an old county map. Up ahead was a little town
called Summit, that had been a flag stop once,
on a spur slanting off from the main line
to Terre Haute. That spur’s been gone for years.

Summit was gone, too. But I found it, after a while,
figured out exactly where it had been,
right at the top of a long rise you could see
stretching for miles across the countryside.
Nothing out there now but lots of beans and corn,
blue sky and clouds. Not even fence rows anymore.

You could almost imagine the train heading west,
up that long grade, pouring on the coal, making
for high ground. When it finally pulled in,
and the telegraph man came out for the mail,
there would be a couple of little kids sitting
on the baggage wagon, waving to the engineer.

I walked up to the only place it could have been.
Right there, at the crest of the hill. Somebody
had kept it mowed. There was a strong wind blowing.
I searched around in the grass for a long time,
but I couldn’t find anything. Not a trace.
Only the land itself, and the way it still rose up.


Jared Carter

 

Ancestral families

Where_Once_They_StoodExcerpted from Where Once They Stood: The Colonial and Early Republic Ancestors of Alpheus Appenheimer and America Swango:

“The tracing of a modern person’s lineage back through the centuries to a single remote ancestor in a vanished time and place, is the essence of genealogy.  However painstaking the research, with continual cross-checking and cross-referencing—however thorough and dispassionate the examination of evidence from multiple sources, however ingenious the triangulation of disparate data, and however rational the reliance on DNA testing for verification—the pursuit of a genetic lineage is an endeavor not untinged by the stain of romanticism. Though they might disavow it emphatically and cling to the respectable trappings of the dedicated scholar, there lurks in the shadowy recesses of every genealogist’s soul a secret Galahad, a quester after the Grail, a seeker after a direct link to some storied, half-mythic ancestor who has captivated the imagination, whether prince, or knight, or notorious outlaw.

The emphasis, in other words, is all on the individual—on direct links to particular ancestors—on traceable lineages—on great grandfathers and great grandmothers, as opposed to great uncles, great aunts, or first cousins several times removed.  This emphasis on direct lineages is mirrored in the history and legal system of every nation, and one can hardly gainsay its importance, but it is nevertheless a distortion of a core human reality: that the most basic unit in human society is not the individual but the family.

If this assertion seems less obvious now than in earlier eras, it is only because so much of human culture—through forces originally set into motion by humankind, but now utterly beyond its control—is currently in the process of disintegration. The typical American family in our time is both fractured and fractious, a mere stump of the great spreading tree that it was in its prime.

We speak reverentially of American individualism as a central national tenet, embodied in the figures of the 18th century longhunter or 19th century mountainman, the lone restless wanderer with his powderhorn and longrifle, self-reliant, living off the land, who has broken finally and utterly with the feudal European system of master and vassal: the quintessence of the free and independent man.

And while such individuals did exist—perhaps in greater numbers on the Appalachian frontier than in any other place before or since—their role in the arduous transformation over decades of the wilderness into established settlements was peripheral at most. That prodigious under-taking, for good or ill, and the brutal struggle it entailed against the Shawnee, Cherokee and other indigenous tribes, was the work not of intrepid individuals but of grittily determined pioneer families whose other options—very often—had all but run out.

Not only was it families who turned the tomahawk claims into backwoods farmsteads, who hewed out the first wagon roads and laid out the earliest frontier towns—it was also families (not generals or governors or governments, but families) who, in many instances, raised the militias, built the forts, and patrolled the forests. Consider those self-reliant families in the Watauga valley on the far side of the Alleghenies: cut off from any hope of support against the Cherokee from the governments of either North Carolina or Virginia, they declared their independence, established their own government and petitioned Williamsburg for recognition.

Dependent on no one but themselves for sustenance from the wilderness and protection against the tribes, families on the frontier naturally turned to neighboring families for support. They joined forces against the dangers that threatened them from all sides, and, before long, sealed their bonds by marriage, until families in a given region became, in effect, one great extended family.

For us now, trying to comprehend the lives of our colonial ancestors, it is not enough simply to trace the lineages of direct forebears. They did not exist as isolated individuals, but as members of extended families and close-knit communities who, for generations, had depended on one another for survival.

For this reason, in presenting the story of Alpheus and America Appenheimer’s frontier ancestors, I have included not only fathers and mothers, sons and daughters, but brothers, sisters, cousins and even in-laws as well—for they too were family.  On the frontier, especially, families were closely bound. They emigrated into the wilderness together, endured hardships together, suffered Indian attacks and abductions together, and went to war together. Calamities were family affairs.”


BJ Omanson

Old Locksley takes sanctuary deep in the cavernous gloom of his house

locksley_cover

from Old Locksley among the Ruins:

.  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .

.  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  It was later that year,
after weeks when the heat of midsummer
had driven Old Locksley to seek the shade,
had driven him, like a disgruntled bear,
to take sanctuary deep in his house,
deep in the cavernous gloom of his house,
with bats in the attic and dripping eaves
and high steepled windows where mystics, monks
and martyrs shone softly in sunlit glass
it was later that year, after summer’s heat
had driven Old Locksley into the hushed
recesses and curtained-off rooms of his house
a house that was more a cavern than house,
with ivy-encumbered and blackened stone
and deeply-set doorways encased in vine
or more like a mausoleum, perhaps,
with its bordering arbor vitae and yew
with crumbling foundation and groaning pipes
and crickets in corners, its redolent rooms
provisioned with humidors of tobacco
and crystal decanters of peaty scotch,
its snug little hideaways fitted out
with old leather sofas and mica lamps
enveloped in amber light  it was later,
much later that year that Locksley, at last,
emerged amid whirlings of leaves released
from willow and maple to clutter the air
all about his head and skitter across
the garden to lodge in the lower boughs
of the conifers  it was later that year
that Locksley returned to his garden seat,
returned to consider and contemplate
the melancholy decline of the year,
the shedding of gold and of crimson leaves,
the dropping of berries and migrating flocks
of sparrows in spruces, and all the subtle
foreshadowings of the coming cold . . .


BJ Omanson

 

John Allan Wyeth, Ezra Pound & the random particularity of war

BeforetheClangoroftheGun_cover_reducedExcerpted from Before the Clangor of the Gun:

“More than any other English-language poet of the war, Wyeth’s language is stripped clean of 19th-century tonalities and devices. A contributing factor to Wyeth’s modernist style might have been that, during the years immediately prior to the publication of This Man’s Army, when he was almost certainly composing his sonnets, Wyeth resided in the American colony in Rapallo, Italy, where he was known to be friends with Ezra Pound (see “Notes on Wyeth’s Years in Rapallo,” p. 99).

While it is impossible to know the nature, or extent, of Pound’s influence on Wyeth, there is no denying that Wyeth’s stringently honed descriptions—where every word contributes to the presentation and every image is distilled to its essentials—accord closely to the Imagist principles which Pound espoused in the years before the war. Even the Imagist stricture that the rhythm of a poem should possess the fluidity of a musical phrase rather than the beat of a metronome, is not violated by Wyeth’s sonnets, which display an unprecedented metrical freedom within the general constraint of the form.

Whether Wyeth developed his acute descriptive powers under the influence of Pound, or from earlier influences, is a matter of conjecture. It is at least as plausible that the minutely observed and needle-sharp descriptions of Henry James provided the primary influence on Wyeth’s technique. According to Edmund Wilson, only he and Wyeth—of their literary circle at Princeton—read James seriously while they were there, and it was Wyeth who led Wilson to a full appreciation of James’ technique.

wyethalone_cropped2_trans            Wyeth’s reliance on chance, on working with whatever objects circumstance might provide, even when they serve no apparent thematic or metaphoric purpose, has a basic affinity with a precept of another major theorist of Imagism, T.E. Hulme, who was a direct influence on Pound. Hulme’s contention was that it is not the object itself that matters, but only its description. Any object will do as well as any other, including random objects served up by chance.

The idea of employing randomness as a compositional principle may have been unusual in literary theory in those years, but in the visual arts the notion of the objet trouvé (“found object”) had been in the air since well before the war, from Picasso’s Still-life with Chair Caning, to Duchamp’s “ready-mades,” to Dada’s reliance on whatever the artist happened to pick up in the street.  It is certainly no stretch to assume that Wyeth, with his years spent in New York, London and Paris, and his lifelong interest in contemporary movements in art, would have keep well abreast of such developments.

Wyeth’s reliance on circumstantial subject matter might tempt a less well-informed critic to dismiss Wyeth’s sonnets as mere documentary reportage, but if that were all his sonnets amounted to, they would lie flat and lifeless on the page.  What we find instead is a body of work where the unsettled randomness of actual events infuses each sonnet with an élan vital, a vital spark. Far from being the equivalent of old newspapers fit only for wrapping fish, Wyeth’s sonnets are living vignettes, rich in chaos, chlorine, and all the random particularity of war.”


BJ Omanson

A Young Girl’s Diary during the Great Depression: Life on an Illinois Farm

AYoungGirlintheGreatDepression_coverExcerpted from the Preface of A Young Girl in the Great Depression:

“What is especially notable about this diary, written by one so young, is how outwardly directed and objective it is.  While her own activities are recorded, they receive little more attention than those of her siblings and parents, with nearly equal additional attention given to the activities of a host of relatives and neighbors. The result is an account of an extended family, and its surrounding community, which is unusually comprehensive.

On the one hand, because she is constrained by the small amount of space is allotted for each day, her entries never exceed more than a modest paragraph. She has to pack in the information, and avoid digressions of any sort. She has to stay focused on particular facts and events and, because the life around her is so rich in the number of small events which she is determined to record, she has no space to spare for description. What matters above all is what people do.

            To an historian, this is pure gold. A major obstacle in understanding rural life in earlier periods, is the lack of sources which portray what people actually did, and how they interacted, on a day-to-day basis: all the little ordinary activities and events which no one thought important enough to record. But it is exactly such details as these which historians require if they are to reconstruct rural life accurately.

Farmers and their families are not natural diarists.  They are simply too busy, and too tired at the end of the day, to keep a faithful record of everything that happens and of what everyone does. Adolescents, on the other hand, have more time, and are probably more inclined to keep diaries, but they almost invariably write about themselves to the exclusion of everything else. Such diaries rarely possess any historical value.

Adolescents are naturally self-centered, and I do not mean this as criticism. Both their outward and inward lives are changing so rapidly that they can barely keep track of the daily stresses, traumas and transformations. The diary of a typical thirteen-year-old is almost entirely subjective. Everything that happens is taken personally. It is simply in the nature of being an adolescent. Their world is changing by the day, and it is a full-time job just to keep track of one’s inner turmoil. There is no time left over to follow everyone else’s activities.

Yet in Betty’s diary the degree of self-centeredness is almost nil. She is more interested in what happen to others than in what happens to herself. She possesses a natural empathy which keeps her outwardly focused. She is pleased when others do well, and sympathetic when they suffer. She writes about those around her in a plain, straightforward manner with no hint of fault-finding. She gives everyone the benefit of the doubt. And as hard as her life obviously is at times, it never occurs to her to complain.

As history, the most valuable documents of rural life are often business records kept by the farmers themselves. Regarding Al Appenheimer’s farm, we are fortunate to possess highly detailed records of the farm’s operation which cover every year from the late 1920s to the early 1970s. But for all their historical significance, such records tell us very little of what individual family members actually did on a day-to-day basis.

Another primary source for understanding the daily life of rural families are letters, but letter writers almost always concentrate on important events such as weddings, births, illnesses and deaths.  What they omit, not surprisingly, are the small occurrences and activities which comprise an ordinary working day. Letters are relatively infrequent, so that events tend to be summarized, and condensed.  They convey little of the daily rhythm of rural life.

It is this aspect of Betty Appenheimer’s diary—the faithful recording of all the little things that she and her family and neighbors do, day in and day out, through three years of changing seasons—which makes her diary such an historical treasure trove.”


BJ Omanson

Dana Gioia on Jack Foley

FoleyCover8_reducedThe following is excerpted from Jack Foley’s Unmanageable Masterpiece:

“Jack Foley has been such an active figure in California letters over the past forty years that it would seem impossible to make sense of West Coast poetry without reference to him. Yet most critics do exactly that. Foley has published on the margins of official literary life. Conventional critics don’t know his work. Time will correct the oversight, but there is no harm in speeding up the process by offering a few observations on his prolific career. There are singular aspects of his work that deserve attention, especially his experimental poetry written for and performed by multiple voices. But poetic innovation is what one expects from a Bay Area Beat. What astonishes the reader is Foley’s critical prose. No one expects a Beat poet to write a major work of literary history or to develop a radically new and revelatory approach to the genre.

Literary history is an academic enterprise, something done on a Mellon grant in a research library by a tenured professor with a book contract from Oxford. On my shelf I see thick volumes with titles such as The Columbia History of American Literature or Oxford History of English Literature. There is good reason that publishers name such books after universities. The genre seems inherently institutional. The volumes resemble collectively compiled reference works more than expressions of personal critical engagement. Literature is an affair of individual sensibility—both in its creation and criticism. Literary history, however, requires the author to reconcile personal opinions with the broader external consensus. That is one reason why such books date quickly; collective opinions change as intellectual fashions change.

There are a few glorious exceptions—literary histories that combine scholarship and personality, virtues that give them considerable longevity. George Saintsbury’s three-volume History of English Prosody (1906) is one conspicuous example—a study that still feels alive more than a century after its publication. The reader may disagree with Saintsbury on a particular point, but the author remains a vital and provocative presence. Likewise René Wellek’s monumental eight-volume History of Modern Criticism: 1750-1950 (published from 1955 to 1986) presents formidable scholarship with a gentle human touch. As polyglot Professor Wellek surveys two hundred years of Western intellectual history, he never forgets that the students in his imaginary seminar are a bit embarrassed at not having done all the assigned reading. Such erudite but engaging books prove not merely useful but invaluable. They provide comprehensive accounts of complex subjects in which the authors communicate their passions, puzzlements, and prejudices.

Yet how seldom is literary history done well. Years of fastidious scholarship and editorial toil often deaden the author who must diligently push the project to its contractual end, even though passion died in chapter three. Academic conventions also weigh upon the style and structure. Critical fashions mire it in short-term concerns. The genre’s problems have increased in recent years, as more surveys have been written not by individuals but committees of experts. Hefty official histories now appear without any unifying narrative line or organizing principle. Written by different authors, each chapter exists in intellectual and stylistic isolation. Pursuing their individual interests, scholars leave gaps in the historical record omitting major writers and subjects. If the genre isn’t dead yet, we can hear the carpenter sawing boards for the coffin.

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It will seem supremely odd to any academic that Jack Foley, an Oakland poet without any institutional support or university connection, has written the most comprehensive history of post-war California poetry—a study that not only surveys the lives and work of hundreds of literary figures but also cogently addresses the contradictory impulses in the state’s creative psyche. Moreover Foley has fashioned his chronicle in an innovative way that is both engaging and unabashedly experimental.”


Dana Gioia

Jared Carter and American regionalism

TheLandItself_cover7_reducedThe following is excerpted from the Introduction to Jared Carter’s new book, The Land Itself:

“That Jared Carter, among living writers, is one of America’s premier regionalist poets is a claim few who know his work well would dispute. Yet describing any writer as regionalist in the second decade of the 21st century is in some ways problematic. The last high-water mark of American regionalism, the 1930s, was already on the wane by the time Jared Carter was born, and regionalism’s death knell was already being sounded by such critics as Lowry Charles Wimberly – who saw in the spread of national brands and national standards the inexorable homogenization of America’s regions. At the same time, John Crowe Ransom and the Agrarians were analyzing the slow death of Southern regionalism due to the spread of industrialism, the migration from rural areas into the cities, and a host of inter-related cultural trends.

After the end of World War II, the homogenization of America’s hinterlands, due to the spread of the interstate highway system and television, received a quantum boost, with its effects becoming more far-reaching and virulent with each passing decade until, by the digital revolution of 1990s, it had come to seem as though regionalism could only legitimately be spoken of in the past tense.

And yet it was through these same decades, when so much of what was most distinctive about America’s heartland was vanishing, that Carter was turning out poem after poem, portraying characters, situations and locations as singular and sharply defined as any in literature, and he was doing so with a honed plainness of style that left no doubt as to their veracity and authenticity.

Beginning with Carter’s first book, Work, For the Night is Coming (1981), readers were introduced to a region which was at once literal and mythical: “Mississinewa County,” somewhere “east of Spoon River, west of Winesburg, and slightly north of Raintree County,” as Carter himself has explained.  It is a fictional county named for an actual river (the Mississinewa, a tributary of the Wabash) which, like the fictional town “Spoon River” (also named for an actual river), Faulkner’s “Yoknapatawpha County,” Frost’s rural New England,  Robinson’s “Tilbury Town” and a long list of other literary regions, is rooted equally in the American continent and the American psyche. Mississinewa County is a multifaceted, multidimensional “place” of such symbolic and allegorical richness that its hinterlands and far boundaries – despite several decades of appreciative commentary – remain largely unexplored. Altogether, Carter’s books contain much of what one has come to expect in a regionalist body of literature from the American Midwest: pool halls and funeral parlors, dilapidated barns and covered bridges, barbershops and taverns, and miles of highways, telephone poles and open country inhabited by farmers, druggists, drifters, drunkards, undertakers and real estate developers. Turning to any of the early and late poems in the current collection, one is struck once again by the assurance and authority in the poet’s voice. Carter’s descriptions are rendered with a pitch-perfect precision that can only come from long familiarity with his subject. He is a plein-air poet, portraying his region with a sharpness of focus and an eye for inconspicuous but telling detail that cannot be achieved at second-hand.

The answer, then, to the question of whether a genuinely regional literature is still possible in the 21st century, when America’s regions have been all but homogenized, suburbanized, industrialized and digitized out of existence, is to be found in the pages of any of Carter’s books, where the poems, like palpable artifacts plucked from field or creekbed, constitute clear evidence of a region still very much alive. Precisely how America’s regions have survived a century of destructive “progress” – at what cost, and in what fashion – are complex questions beyond the scope of this essay. But one index and proof of their survival is to be found in the literature they produce, and Carter’s books are as strong a piece of evidence as one might hope for.”


BJ Omanson

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