Archives for category: Literature

The school district of Burbank, California, is embroiled in a bitter debate about book banning. The books in questions are about racism, and black parents are complaining that the books are racist. Among the books that parents want removed are: Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, one of the most censored books in American literature; Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird; Mildred D. Taylor’s Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry.

I wrote a book about censorship of language on tests and in textbooks and of books used in school. It is called The Language Police. I recommend it to anyone wanting to know more about the history of these practices.

The Los Angeles Times describes the controversy:

During a virtual meeting on Sept. 9, middle and high school English teachers in the Burbank Unified School District received a bit of surprising news: Until further notice, they would not be allowed to teach some of the books on their curriculum.

Five novels had been challenged in Burbank: Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird,” Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men,” Theodore Taylor’s “The Cay” and Mildred D. Taylor’s Newbery Medal-winning young-adult classic “Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry.”

The challenges came from four parents (three of them Black) for alleged potential harm to the public-school district’s roughly 400 Black students. All but “Huckleberry Finn” have been required reading in the BUSD.

The ongoing case has drawn the attention of free-speech organizations across the country, which are decrying it as the latest act of school censorship. The charge against these books — racism — has been invoked in the past, but in contrast to earlier fights across the country, this one is heavily inflected by an atmosphere of urgent reckoning, as both opponents and defenders of the novels claim the mantle of antiracism.

The debate within the district comes after a summer of mass protests calling for an end to the unjust treatment of Black people. As a result, many institutions and school districts like BUSD are taking a hard look at themselves, their policies, curriculums and practices, in many cases publishing antiracist statements. And while book banning has a long history in America, the situation in Burbank — once a sundown town that practiced racial segregation — is freshly complicated.

In the abstract, it’s a dispute about the meaning of free speech and who gets heard. More specifically, it’s about what should be taught to the district’s roughly 15,200 enrolled students — who are 47.2% white, 34.5% Latino, 9.2% Asian and 2.6% Black — and how Burbank can move forward on race boldly but sensitively...

A week after teachers learned of the removal, the National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC) sent a letter to BUSD urging the district to allow teaching of the books while the challenges are under review. On Oct. 14, PEN America released a petition calling for the same.

“[W]e believe that the books … have a great pedagogical value and should be retained in the curriculum,” read letter from the NCAC.

Books written by or featuring people of color are “disproportionately likely to be banned,” said James Tager, PEN’s deputy director of free expression research and policy. “That is a decades-long trend that advocates and observers have seen.”

John Thompson, historian and retired teacher in Oklahoma, reviews a book for young people. The New York Times described the book as “a modern masterpiece–as epic as the “Iliad” and “Shahnameh,” and as heartwarming as “Charlotte’s Web.” It’s for the kids act the lunch table; the heroes of tomorrow, just looking to survive the battle of adolescence.” John agrees.

He writes:

The first word on the cover of Daniel Nayeri’s Everything Sad Is Untrue (A True Story) is untrue. In truth, the author’s first name isn’t Daniel. It was Khosrou, who was a king 1500 years ago. Nayeri’s parents were both professionals and they were descended from elites, but he became a refugee growing up poor in Edmond, Oklahoma. The acquired name of Daniel was less likely to prompt rejection, discomfort, and sadness.

The book’s first sentence is: “All Persians are liars and lying is a sin.  That’s what the kids in Mrs. Miller’s class think.” But Daniel’s dad, Massoud, who also was a poet, says Persians are worse than liars because they’re poets, so they don’t know they’re liars. The truth about poets is, “They are just trying to remember their dreams.”

Daniel draws on 6,000 years of Persian memories and the Oklahoma culture of his childhood to make sense of his “last memories” of those he loved. He goes back and forth from the dreams of Iran and Oklahoma, weaving a historic tapestry, complete with the flaws that are purposely woven into Persian rugs.  

Many key themes come from 1,001 Nights, which is “not in true history, but in myth history.” The Persian king, Shahryar, marries a woman every night and executes her the next day until Scheherazade, a “finigonzon” (beautiful girl), learns to survive by telling incomplete stories each night and crafting a new one the next morning. She survives by never getting to a last memory.

The Oklahoma evils, exemplified by Brandon Goff, the bully who abused Daniel the most, aren’t as extreme. He suffers just as much when trying to bond with the beautiful and affluent Kelly J., and she cruelly reads the Valentines Day card he sent her to their classmates. But, Daniel is painfully aware of how his classmates just watch and remain silent, illustrating the evil of “all the stuff you’ve left undone.”

The children’s acculturation towards evilness is foreshadowed in their class lesson during the Iraq War. Jared S. “draws a bunch of fighter jets shooting arrows at monkeys on camels.” Daniel wants to tell about being three-years-old and being bombed by Saddam Hussein every night, but nobody listens. After trying to enlighten a classmate, he’s brushed off, “I-ran, I-rack “I’d kick em in the balls.”

Another theme comes from the tale of Mithridates, who knew he was targeted for poisoning. He gave himself nonlethal doses of poison, building immunity. Since he then drank the poison with his friends who plotted against him at a banquet, they were obligated to do the same in order to hide their lies, thus killing themselves. But Daniel drew another lesson; the lies you tell to survive, or fit in, come back as evil. We can all become like Mithridates whose “poisoned heart beat poisoned blood.”

As Daniel’s stories unfold, he explores differences in the way that common themes play out. He notes, “Oklahomans don’t poison each other except with canned green beans that have a vague medicine flavor.” He then gives hilarious descriptions of how processed food, especially sweets, fit into different social roles, especially at church potluck dinners.

His altered drawing of the Oklahoma map illustrates the best of its culture. It looks like a soup bowl that Christians use to feed strangers. In the other outline of the state, the Panhandle is the handle of an axe that chops down on others who are different.

A church potluck dinner degenerates after the clueless Daniel wore a Miami Dolphins cap in a group of Cowboy fans. He ends up in the Emergency Room after a fight over Oklahoma dreams he was oblivious about.

Being an A+ student makes it more difficult for Daniel, a mazloom or “a kicked puppy,” to fit in. He persists and becomes more skillful in navigating cultural complexities. He notes that “Oklahoma is the only state in the Union where it is legal to own an anti-sniper rifle” that shoots “bullets the size of milk cartons.” But he bonds with a wonderful librarian and his teacher. And trying to discuss Persian desserts can become confusing, so he deescalates by adding, “I also like Kit Kat.” He also picks up insights like, “One rule in Oklahoma is that if a grownie talks to you, speak like an Okie. If a finigonzon talks to you, be chill.”

Daniel, who was 8-years-old when he came to Oklahoma, adapts and his elementary and middle school experiences teach him insights, such as, “In Oklahoma, rich people have nice things. In Iran, rich people have nice spaces.” He also learns:

“Sometimes in a village in Iran, or Edmond, Oklahoma, a dog and a cat will have such a vicious fight that both of them are changed forever. … [They] make some kind of boundary and stick to their territory, so they can pretend they won a kingdom the size of half of a town, when they really lost a limb the size of the other half.”

During his typical day, Daniel would stay up to 4:00 am in order to miss the school bus that Brandon Goff road. He would be last in line for lunch, so he would be less likely to be seen as not having any money and get more food from the nice cafeteria lady. Even on a city bus, he learned to sit in the back after bullying left him with multiple bruises.

Daniel’s sister, Dina, was even smarter than he, and she was less likely to contort herself into being accepted. But, when they were in England, Dina tried so hard to fit in that she followed a kid’s instructions, put her finger in a door jamb, and had it chopped off.

Probably influenced by painkillers, Dina emerged from her room that night having found Jesus. Their mom, Sima, followed her lead. This almost cost Sima her life. Back in Iran, she was attending an underground church. Rather than name names under torture, she and the children escape to Dubai. Her ex-husband connected them with a sheik who seemed willing to rescue them. But he wanted Dina as his wife. The mom got them out of the situation by telling him that the child bride he wanted was a Christian. So, they found themselves homeless.

In a camp in Italy, Daniel became close to a wonderful Kurdish football player and mentor. After probing too deeply, he learned why Kurds were treated like half of a person. His friend had been gassed so badly by Saddam Hussein that he was half of a half of a person.  

Due to the efforts of Christians like Jim and Jean Dawson, who Daniel says exemplify the best of Oklahoma, the family makes it to Edmond. His mom was their hero, working multiple jobs, enduring abuse from her second husband. Daniel describes just a part of her workday:

She comes home and goes straight to the kitchen. I don’t mean that she comes home, goes to her room to change clothes, wanders into the bathroom, picks through the mail, and then finally arrives at the refrigerator. … She [goes] straight to the kitchen to cook dinner.

As he seeks to follow intertwined dreams, Daniel learns, “History is a weave of a rug.” He understands what some people want when he learns: “A god that listens is love. A god who speaks is law.”

He eventually understands:

“Love is empty without justice.

Justice is cruel without love.”

“God should be both.

If a god isn’t, that is no God.”

Daniel learns, “If you want a god who listens, maybe all you want is pity for losing your only friend, like Mr. Sheep Sheep.” (Mr. Sheep Sheep was Daniels beloved pet who he had to leave in Iran.) If you want a god who speaks, you may embrace authoritarianism.

The novel’s climax occurs when his dad visits from Iran. At first, when learning that his classmates were afraid that his father was another migrant without papers, the prospects of the encounter look dim. But, his father wins everyone over, even being baptized at the church where Daniel had been assaulted. For about the first time, a reader can hope for an unambiguous happy ending. When his dad brings them to Water World Rapids, optimism grows even further.

Maybe Daniel can free himself from the refugees’ cycle of “last memories” of loved ones and places they lose.

Daniel foreshadows disappointment, however, when he apologizes to readers, saying that maybe Persians are sinners; and he’s a “patchwork text;” who deserves to be hit all the time; and a liar who doesn’t deserve a welcome.

“Sorry I wasted your time.”

In the last page, Daniel’s family lands back in the Economy Lodge Motel, but now he is different, “I knew we would be whole one day.” “Maybe it would take a thousand years,” the seeker of true dreams concludes, “But we’d get there, little by little.”

W.H. Auden speaks to us, about his time, about our time:

 

September 1, 1939

W. H. Auden – 1907-1973

I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade:
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives;
The unmentionable odour of death
Offends the September night.

Accurate scholarship can
Unearth the whole offence
From Luther until now
That has driven a culture mad,
Find what occurred at Linz,
What huge imago made
A psychopathic god:
I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return.

Exiled Thucydides knew
All that a speech can say
About Democracy,
And what dictators do,
The elderly rubbish they talk
To an apathetic grave;
Analysed all in his book,
The enlightenment driven away,
The habit-forming pain,
Mismanagement and grief:
We must suffer them all again.

Into this neutral air
Where blind skyscrapers use
Their full height to proclaim
The strength of Collective Man,
Each language pours its vain
Competitive excuse:
But who can live for long
In an euphoric dream;
Out of the mirror they stare,
Imperialism’s face
And the international wrong.

Faces along the bar
Cling to their average day:
The lights must never go out,
The music must always play,
All the conventions conspire
To make this fort assume
The furniture of home;
Lest we should see where we are,
Lost in a haunted wood,
Children afraid of the night
Who have never been happy or good.

The windiest militant trash
Important Persons shout
Is not so crude as our wish:
What mad Nijinsky wrote
About Diaghilev
Is true of the normal heart;
For the error bred in the bone
Of each woman and each man
Craves what it cannot have,
Not universal love
But to be loved alone.

From the conservative dark
Into the ethical life
The dense commuters come,
Repeating their morning vow;
“I will be true to the wife,
I’ll concentrate more on my work,”
And helpless governors wake
To resume their compulsory game:
Who can release them now,
Who can reach the deaf,
Who can speak for the dumb?

All I have is a voice
To undo the folded lie,
The romantic lie in the brain
Of the sensual man-in-the-street
And the lie of Authority
Whose buildings grope the sky:
There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.

Defenceless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.

Garrison Keillor’s “The Writers’ Almanac” notes the birthday of journalist-humorist-cynic H. L. Mencken. I always think of his reference to the “booboisee.” I would love to see him and Molly Ivins writing today, as our national politics have hit a nadir.

It’s the birthday of German-American satirist, cultural critic, and journalist H.L. Mencken (1880) (books by this author), born Henry Louis Mencken in Baltimore, Maryland, where he lived his entire life. Mencken was sometimes called the “Sage of Baltimore” or the “Bard of Baltimore” for his acerbic, pungent critiques of American life and politics.

Mencken’s father owned a cigar factory, and the family lived in an attractive row house in Union Square. Except for five years of married life, Mencken lived in that house until the day he died. When he was seven, his father gave him a printing press, which Mencken later said was one of the things that inspired him to become a journalist. His other inspiration was Mark Twain. He discovered Huckleberry Finn at nine and called it “the most stupendous event in my life.” After high school, his father gave him two choices: he could go to college or he could work in the cigar factory. Mencken chose the factory, which he hated, but he also took one of the very first correspondence courses ever offered: a class in writing from Cosmopolitan University. He later joked it was his sole journalism training.

After his father died of a stroke, Mencken began hounding the offices of the Morning Herald, finally talking himself into a job. Within two years, he was the drama critic. Within three years, he was the city editor. A year later, he was the managing editor. Mencken once said, “I believe that a young journalist, turned loose in a large city, had more fun than any other man.”

Mencken’s column, “The Free Lance,” which ran in the Baltimore Sun for 18 years, was nationally syndicated and made him quite famous for his caustic views on politics, culture, and science. In 1931, he referred to the state of Arkansas as “an apex of moronia,” and the legislature there passed a motion to pray for his soul. About Isaac Newton, he said: “[Isaac Newton] was a mathematician, which is mostly hogwash, too. Imagine measuring infinity! That’s a laugh.”

In 1925, Mencken traveled all the way to Tennessee to cover the famous trial of John Thomas Scopes, a high school teacher who’d been arrested for daring to teach evolutionary theory. It was Mencken who gave the trial its infamous name: the “Monkey Trial,” and who convinced famous defense attorney Clarence Darrow to offer his services to John Scopes. In the play Inherit the Wind (1955), which was based on the Scopes trial, the character of E.K. Hornbeck, a blustering, cynical atheist, was based on Mencken. Mencken was also an editor of The Smart Set, a witty literary magazine that published many up-and-coming authors, like F. Scott Fitzgerald and Edna St. Vincent Millay.

Mencken was a prolific letter writer, often penning more than 60 letters a day, which turned out to be more than 100,000 letters during his lifetime. In between writing his columns, he published more than 30 books, including the memoir trilogy Happy Days (1940), Newspaper Days (1941), and Heathen Days (1943). He also wrote The American Language, a multivolume study of how English language is spoken in the United States, which is now considered a classic. Until he was 50 years old, Mencken was called “America’s Best Known Bachelor,” having published numerous screeds against marriage in his columns. But he’d fallen in love, and he got married, and one newspaper quipped, “Bachelors of the nation are aghast, and sore afraid, like a sheep without a leader.” Mencken responded: “The Holy Spirit informed and inspired me. Like all other infidels, I am superstitious and always follow hunches: this one seemed to be a superb one.”

Mencken’s wife died five years after they married. He was heartbroken. He criticized President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and didn’t support the New Deal, and his popularity waned. He never fully recovered from a stroke (1948) and died in 1956.

H.L. Mencken said, “The two main ideas that run through all of my writing, whether it be literary criticism or political polemic are these: I am strong in favor of liberty and I hate fraud.”

A tribute posted in Garrison Keillor’s “The Writers’ Almanac”:

It’s the birthday of the late poet Mary Oliver, born in Maple Heights, Ohio (1935).

From the time she was young, she knew that writers didn’t make very much money, so she sat down and made a list of all the things in life she would never be able to have — a nice car, fancy clothes, and eating out at expensive restaurants were all on the list. But young Mary decided she wanted to be a poet anyway.

Oliver went to college, but dropped out. She made a pilgrimage to visit Edna St. Vincent Millay’s 800-acre estate in Austerlitz, New York. The poet had been dead for several years, but Millay’s sister Norma lived there along with her husband. Mary Oliver and Norma hit it off, and Oliver lived there for years, helping out on the estate, keeping Norma company, and working on her own writing. In 1958, a woman named Molly Malone Cook came to visit Norma while Oliver was there, and the two fell in love. A few years later, they moved together to Provincetown, Massachusetts.

Oliver said: “I was very careful never to take an interesting job. Not an interesting one. I took lots of jobs. But if you have an interesting job you get interested in it. I also began in those years to keep early hours. […] If anybody has a job and starts at 9, there’s no reason why they can’t get up at 4:30 or five and write for a couple of hours, and give their employers their second-best effort of the day — which is what I did.”

She published five books of poetry, and still almost no one had heard of her. She doesn’t remember ever having given a reading before 1984, which is the year that she was doing dishes one evening when the phone rang and it was someone calling to tell her that her most recent book, American Primitive (1983), had won the Pulitzer Prize. Suddenly, she was famous. She didn’t really like the fame — she didn’t give many interviews, didn’t want to be in the news. When editors called their house for Oliver, Cook would answer, announce that she was going to get Oliver, fake footsteps, and then get back on the phone and pretend to be the poet — all so that Oliver didn’t have to talk on the phone to strangers, something she did not enjoy. Cook was a photographer, and she was also Oliver’s literary agent. They stayed together for more than 40 years, until Cook’s death in 2005. Oliver passed away in 2019.

She said: “I’ve always wanted to write poems and nothing else. There were times over the years when life was not easy, but if you’re working a few hours a day and you’ve got a good book to read, and you can go outside to the beach and dig for clams, you’re okay.”

Happy birthday to one of our best American writers! This tribute appeared in Garrison Keillor’s “The Writers’ Almanac.”

I own a fifth edition of Wright’s Black Boy. What makes it special is that it’s signed in the frontispiece “Sophie Tucker.” It was her personal copy. When I was a child, Sophie Tucker was a popular singer whose theme song was “Some of These Days.” She appeared in Houston at the Shamrock Hotel, which was the go-to destination for stars at that time. During her run, she stayed at a neighbor’s house and I got to meet the great woman.

I never met Richard Wright. I wish I had, but not as a child.

Today is the birthday of American novelist Richard Wright (1908) (books by this author), author of the novel Native Son (1940) and Black Boy (1945), a seminal memoir of African American experience. Wright was born in Roxie, Mississippi, a town he described as “swarming with rats, cats, dogs, fortune tellers, cripples, blind men, whores, salesmen, rent collectors, and children.”

Wright dropped out of school in the ninth grade to help his family. Black people weren’t allowed to take out library books in the 1920s, so he forged a letter from an Irish co-worker asking a librarian to “let the colored boy use my card.” Wright read voraciously, studying the styles of different writers. He told a friend, “I want my life to count for something.”

He was in New York by 1937, working on a guidebook of Harlem for the Federal Writers’ Project when his first collection of stories, Uncle Tom’s Children, was published (1938). The collection won him a Guggenheim Fellowship, which enabled him to keep working on the novel that became Native Son, the story of 20-year-old African-American Bigger Thomas, whose opportunity-deprived life on the South Side of Chicago leads him to commit murder. The first draft was written in four months. The book is a searing examination of the consequences of systemic racism. About the book, Wright said: “I was guided by but one criterion: to tell the truth as I saw it and felt it. I swore to myself that if I ever wrote another book, no one would weep over it; that it would be so hard and deep that they would have to face it without the consolation of tears.” The novel was an instant sensation, selling more than 250,000 copies in its first three weeks.

Wright said: “All literature is protest. You can’t name a single novel that isn’t protest.”

This greeting was posted on Garrison Keillor’s “The Writers’ Almanac.” My older son fell in love with the Burroughs’ books, not just those about Tarzan, and read every one of them. He subsequently devoured every Agatha Christie novel. Dozens of them.

It’s the birthday of American writer Edgar Rice Burroughs (1875) (books by this author), born in Chicago, creator of the popular fictional character Tarzan, King of the Apes. Burroughs was working in Chicago as a pencil-sharpener salesman when he decided to try his hand at writing for pulp magazines. He said, “If people were paid for writing rot such as I read in some of those magazines, I could write stories just as rotten.” His efforts began appearing in All-Story Magazine (1912) and were a hit, influencing future science fiction writers like Ray Bradbury.

He was also secretly at work on an adventure story about a young boy in the jungles of West Africa. John Clayton, heir to the House of Greystoke, is adopted by kindly great apes after his parents die. The apes name the baby “Tarzan,” which means “white skin” in ape language. The boy is reared by the apes and learns the ways of the jungle. He also finds his parents’ abandoned cabin and their books, and he teaches himself to read and speak English.

Tarzan of the Apes was an instant success upon publication (1914). Burroughs made so much money he formed his own publishing house and bought land in California that eventually became the city of Tarzana.

The character captured the public’s imagination, spawning more than 40 novels, a comic book series, and numerous Hollywood films, which made Burroughs unhappy, because the films portrayed Tarzan as a savage. In the books, he is an erudite and wealthy heir to a noble English fortune.

This tribute to a great political critic appeared in Garrison Keillor’s “The Writers’ Almanac.” Molly Ivins is sorely missed today. We can only imagine what she would have written about Trump and Pence and the other idiots running the government.

It’s the birthday of the journalist and humorist who said, “The thing about democracy, beloveds, is that it is not neat, orderly, or quiet. It requires a certain relish for confusion.” Molly Ivins (books by this author), born in Monterey, California (1944) and raised in Houston, Texas. She went to Smith and to Columbia’s School of Journalism and spent years covering the police beat for the Minneapolis Tribune (the first woman to do so) before moving back to Texas, the setting and subject of much of her life’s writing.

Ivins especially liked to poke fun at the Texas Legislature, which she referred to as “the Lege.” She gave George W. Bush the nickname “Shrub” and also referred to him as a post turtle (based on an old joke: the turtle didn’t get there itself, doesn’t belong there, and needs help getting out of the dilemma). She had actually known President Bush since they were teenagers in Houston. She poked fun at Democrats, too, and said about Bill Clinton: “If left to my own devices, I’d spend all my time pointing out that he’s weaker than bus-station chili. But the man is so constantly subjected to such hideous and unfair abuse that I wind up standing up for him on the general principle that some fairness should be applied. Besides, no one but a fool or a Republican ever took him for a liberal.” Clinton later said that Molly Ivins “was good when she praised me and painfully good when she criticized me.”

Her fiery liberal columns caused a lot of debate in Texas, with newspaper readers always writing in to complain. One time, she wrote about the Republican congressman from Dallas: “If his IQ slips any lower we’ll have to water him twice a day.” It generated a storm of controversy, and the paper she wrote for decided to use it to their advantage, to boost readership. They started placing advertisements on billboards all over Dallas that said, “Molly Ivins can’t say that … can she?” She used the line as the title of her first book (published in 1991).

She went on to write several best-selling books, including Shrub: The Short but Happy Political Life of George W. Bush — which was actually written and published in 2000, before George W. Bush had been elected to the White House. Ivins later said, “The next time I tell you someone from Texas should not be president of the United States, please, pay attention.”

Molly Ivins died of breast cancer in 2007 at the age of 62. She once wrote: “Having breast cancer is massive amounts of no fun. First they mutilate you; then they poison you; then they burn you. I have been on blind dates better than that.”

Molly Ivins once said: “I am not anti-gun. I’m pro-knife. Consider the merits of the knife. In the first place, you have to catch up with
someone in order to stab him. A general substitution of knives for guns would promote physical fitness. We’d turn into a whole nation of great runners. Plus, knives don’t ricochet. And people are seldom killed while cleaning their knives.”

Catherine O’Neill Grace is a senior associate editor at the Wellesley College alumnae magazine, where this article was published. The article reminded me of why I loved college, lo those many years ago. My freshman poetry professor was Philip Booth, who was a poet. He was also very handsome, and I think that every young woman in his class had a crush on him. I know I did.

Ms. Grace writes:

Back in November, long before our world was overturned, I sent an email to Dan Chiasson, Lorraine C. Wang Professor of English at Wellesley. The subject line read: “I’m Nobody.”

I was writing to ask if I could audit ENG 357: The World of Emily Dickinson in the spring. I admit it felt a bit audacious to refer to one of Dickinson’s most famous poems.

I’m nobody! Who are you?
Are you nobody, too?
Then there’s a pair of us—don’t tell!
They’d banish us, you know.

How dreary to be somebody!
How public, like a frog
To tell your name the livelong day
To an admiring bog!

But Chiasson replied, “Catherine, with that subject line, how can I say no??”

“I’m Nobody!” is the first poem I remember knowing. Perhaps it actually was the first; perhaps I learned it later, and it effaced other, simpler rhymes. It hardly matters. Because what I remember, what I still embrace as “first poem,” is this Emily Dickinson verse, written in Amherst, Mass., circa 1861, and listed as #288 in the Thomas H. Johnson edition of her poems, published initially in 1960.

So in January, I bought a fresh copy of Johnson’s 770-page The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson and slipped diffidently into my first college-level English class since the 1970s. Room 338, on the third floor of Green Hall, was chilly that day. Every seat was filled, and we sat elbow-to-elbow and notebook-to-notebook as class began.

Reading my notes from those first weeks, I see that our class explored Dickinson family biography, read excerpts from essays about 19th-century material culture and attitudes to death, about the intellectual life of Amherst, Mass., and about the role of the Civil War in Dickinson’s work. We went online to interpret her handwriting and her use of punctuation—those dashes!—amid the riches of the Emily Dickinson Archive, an open-source website of the poet’s handwritten manuscripts. We speculated about the unsolved mystery of her withdrawal from the world into her bedroom on the second floor of the Dickinson homestead. We began to call her Emily, addressing her as one might a friend rather than with the traditional English-major trope of “the speaker,” or “the narrator.”

And in every single class, we worked as a group—auditors included—reading the poems aloud, dissecting their diction and dashes, their moments of violence, their verbal puzzles, their humor, and their reverence for nature. Together, we were discovering what Chiasson calls “one of the most thrilling and idiosyncratic minds in literature.”

This was heady stuff for me; I could feel long-closed doors in my mind and imagination creaking open. I loved being around the energy and commitment of the students, their willingness to risk their own interpretations of Emily’s work and life. I loved Chiasson’s quirky erudition, his references ranging from the metaphysical poets to pop culture and TV, sometimes in a single sentence.

There was a Tuesday in early March warm enough to allow us to hold class outside, declaiming Dickinson in the amphitheater behind Alumnae Hall. We were looking forward to an April field trip to the Emily Dickinson Museum in Amherst; to a 5 a.m. silent meeting in May on the shores of Lake Waban to listen to the birds’ dawn chorus; to a final gathering at our professor’s house to watch episodes of the cult favorite streaming TV show Dickinson.

But everything changed. In mid-March, we left Wellesley’s campus, and as Emily wrote in #303, “then shut the door.”

Two weeks later, we reconvened. Chiasson fired up Zoom and set up a retro blog for posting poems and commenting on them. Everyone started a journal. ENG 357 was back, stripped down and reconstituted digitally. And we went straight back to the poems. From around the country, seated in bedrooms and on back porches, in kitchens and home libraries and one auditor’s piano studio, we re-entered the world of Emily Dickinson. There was palpable joy in being together again, even digitally.

“I’m sure it has occurred to you that our interiors—our bounded environments, however large or small, and wherever we find ourselves—are suddenly our entire worlds; our predicament or opportunity mirrors Dickinson’s,” Chiasson wrote to the class.

It felt to many of us that Dickinson was teaching us how to live richly within the boundaries of our new world. Reviewing my notes from our very first class, I read that after Emily’s retreat to her room, her letters and poems became her social life. Read “Zoom” for “letters” and that was true for the 22 of us in ENG 357, too.

“I can’t help but feel Dickinson’s language as visceral reminders of the now,” Paige Calvert ’20 wrote in the class blog. “Today feels like I’m putting ‘new Blossoms in /my/ Glass,’ taking out what has sat in my bed with me for two weeks and finding something new, something that wishes to be renewed, rejuvenated. Do others feel similar? This return to Wellesley, although digital, brings me a new sense of calm that I haven’t had in quite a while. The line that honestly made me tear up this morning was: ‘We cannot put Ourself away.’ Because somehow that’s exactly what I feel has happened to me. I feel like I have put away a part of myself for this time of transition, and only now have I woken up and decided to come back, come out, come ‘to Flesh’ once again. It’s really truly remarkable how Emily’s words can continue to have such impact—and now, when we are at home, turning to art, music, literature, poetry, theater to make us feel human—Emily’s poems are some of the best.”

Sara Lucas ’22 wrote, “This time trapped in a smaller world has been teaching me the wonders of knowing one space very intimately. I’m so used to being out and about that I’ve never noticed the small worlds existing right in my childhood bedroom or my parents’ backyard. I think of Emily as I watch a hummingbird drink from our rain-filled eaves, as I track an ant’s path over the brick steps to our front door, or as I contemplate the green leaves of the old oak tree outside my bedroom window. I think of the acuity and wonder with which she took in her limited surroundings, and I strive to do the same.”

When I signed up for ENG 357, I thought I would learn more about the work of a poet I had loved since childhood. Little did I know that I was signing up for a wise, maddening, observant, and challenging guide to our post-pandemic solitude. Take, for instance, this undated poem, #1695:

There is a solitude of space
A solitude of sea
A solitude of death, but these
Society shall be
Compared with that profounder site
That polar privacy
A soul admitted to itself—
Finite Infinity.

In 2016, Chiasson wrote in a New Yorker book review, “This is an extraordinary time to read Dickinson, one of the richest moments since her death. The publication of Envelope Poems and the growing collection of Dickinson’s manuscripts, available online and in inexpensive print editions, coincides with an ambitious restoration of the Dickinson properties in Amherst. …”

How much more extraordinary it would be to read Dickinson in spring 2020, none of us could possibly have foreseen. Yet the slight, evasive, white-clad poet finding her voice in her bedroom in Amherst turned out to be a perfect companion. We were each alone in our rooms, but with Emily we were together.

Catherine O’Neill Grace, a senior associate editor for this magazine, is riding out quarantine at her home in Sherborn, Mass., in the trusty New England company of Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, and Louisa May Alcott. She and the other ENG 357 auditors and a few students are continuing to meet virtually to read and discuss Emily Dickinson.

The versions of the poems printed here were published in 1891 and 1924 respectively and are in the public domain.

Retired teacher Glen Brown has written his own poetic addendum to a book by Robert Sears called “The Beautiful Poetry of Donald Trump.”

I was not aware of Sears’ collection and organizing of Trumpian verbiage into blank verse. Searching for the poetry of Trump by Sears on Amazon, I discovered that he also wrote a book titled: “Vladimir Putin: Life Coach.”

Here are one of Glen Brown’s Trump poems:


“I’m One of the Smartest People in the World” by Donald J. Trump

“Look, having nuclear —
my uncle was a great professor
and scientist and engineer,
Dr. John Trump at MIT;
good genes, very good genes,
okay, very smart, the Wharton School of Finance,
very good, very smart —
you know, if you’re a conservative Republican,
if I were a liberal, if, like, okay,
if I ran as a liberal Democrat,
they would say I’m one of the smartest people
anywhere in the world —
it’s true! — but when you’re a conservative Republican
they try — oh, do they do a number —
that’s why I always start off:
Went to Wharton, was a good student,
went there, went there, did this, built a fortune —
you know I have to give my like credentials
all the time, because we’re a little disadvantaged —
but you look at the nuclear deal,
the thing that really bothers me —
it would have been so easy,
and it’s not as important as these lives are
nuclear is powerful; my uncle explained that to me
many, many years ago,
the power and that was 35 years ago;
he would explain the power
of what’s going to happen
and he was right —
who would have thought?
but when you look at what’s going on
with the four prisoners —
now it used to be three, now it’s four —
but when it was three and even now,
I would have said it’s all in the messenger;
fellas, and it is fellas because, you know,
they don’t, they haven’t figured that the women
are smarter right now than the men,
so, you know, it’s gonna take them
about another 150 years —
but the Persians are great negotiators,
the Iranians are great negotiators,
so, and they, they just killed, they just killed us.”