References to Aldous Huxley in U.S. Court Opinions

Aldous Huxley

Aldous Huxley

In June 2016, I attended the annual conference of the Society for the Study of Midwestern Literature (SSML). There I read my fiction and presented on “The Space and Place of Western Minnesota Writers.” Since I had just been accepted into law school, throughout the conference I kept drifting to the question of how I could combine my passion for literature with my interest in law. (Though, of course, as every good lawyer knows, good legal writing is also good creative writing). Then an idea came to me: I could study judicial references to dystopian literature.

Brave New World book cover

Brave New World (1932)

Someday I’ll expand this to include George Orwell and 1984, but as a test-run, I decided to focus on Aldous Huxley, the English author of Brave New World (1932; “BNW”) and The Doors of Perception (1954). Given BNW’s dystopian bioethics, I assumed it would be leveraged as a rhetorical device—the specter against which parties framed discussions of modern medicine, drugs, and government control. So, using Lexis-Nexis, I ran a keyword search for “Aldous Huxley” and found 45 opinions. (The keyword “George Orwell” returns 210). Twenty-nine of these were from federal courts, with the rest coming from the states. I then coded the keyword-reference per its context—i.e. whether the opinion analogized with BNW, referenced book bans, quoted Huxley personally, or referenced Huxley in some “other” context. This last catch-all included references that were not in any way unique or meaningful (e.g. a reference to Timothy Leary’s friendship with Huxley or a court’s takedown of a brief appealing more to literary than legal theory).[1] Continue reading

“American Dystopia”: Read My Review of Claire Sprague’s “It Can Happen Here.”

518gnwuhril-_sx311_bo1204203200_

It Can Happen Here by Claire Sprague

With the presidential candidacy of Donald J. Trump, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that there’s been a renewed interest in Sinclair Lewis’ novel It Can’t Happen Here (1935). For those unfamiliar with it, it’s about the rise-to-power of a Depression-era demagogue named Sen. “Buzz” Windrip who becomes president with a campaign based on religious zeal, patriotic fervor, and economic distress. Once in office Windrip exercises broad executive authority, going so far as to create a paramilitary force a la the Nazi SS. This he uses to, among other things, terrorize and suppress the media. To put it briefly, It Can’t Happen Here is the story of how “when Fascism comes to America, it’ll come as a cross wrapped in the American flag.”

One wishes the circumstances were different, but I think it’s exciting to see more people engaging with Lewis’ novel. Several bookstores I’ve been to recently have it placed prominently in their “staff picks” sections, and, in Berkeley, a stage adaptation is gaining a lot of media attention. Hopefully all of this will lead readers to see that American fascism was just one of many things Lewis scrutinized–after all, he also addressed American provincialismcapitalism, and (my favorite) evangelism.

Although It Can’t Happen Here is one of the most-famous American dystopian novels, Lewis is not the only author (nor even the first) to have written about this topic. In fact, this is something I once discussed in a short review-essay published in the Sinclair Lewis Society Newsletter (Spring 2015). The book I reviewed was titled It Can Happen Here, a literary study that compares and contrasts Lewis’ novel with the works of Jack London (The Iron Heel, 1908) and Philip Roth (The Plot Against America, 2004). I have included below an excerpt, though you can read the full essay here.

With Election Day approaching, I’m optimistic our country will make the right choice, but as Lewis argued (and which Sprague expands upon in her own book), we should never be so bold as to say “It can’t happen here.”

Continue reading

Translating Sinclair Lewis into English (Two Poems)

lewis-sinclair-loc

Sinclair Lewis

As my regular readers know, I write a lot about Sinclair Lewis. For example, there’s the anecdote about him drinking with Gov. Floyd B. Olson, his advice on writing, and how those overseas understood his work. I also write about poetry, and recently I published here translations of Norwegian-American poet Julius B. Baumann. Well, here’s where the two worlds meet.

In 2013 I started the Sinclair Lewis Poetry Project to collect together, in one volume, the unpublished poetry of the United States’ first literary Nobel Laureate. To do this I went through several archives culling together more than 50 pieces of published and unpublished works, dating from Lewis’ undergraduate years to the last year of his life. Some poems, as one can imagine, are better than others.

While doing this research, two poems in particular caught my eye. Both were published while Lewis was a student at Yale, writing for the student magazine the Courant. Though he published a handful of poems at this time, these two stood out because they are the only examples of Lewis writing in a language that isn’t English — in this case, German.

So, with a little help I started “Translating Lewis into English” and published them in the Sinclair Lewis Society Newsletter (Fall 2014). You can read the accompanying article (and the translations) here.

From the introduction:

Growing up on the prairies of western Minnesota, Lewis devoured the books of his father’s library. Reveling in the works of Dickens, Scott, and Irving, he dreamed of Ivanhoe and imagined himself a knight in medieval lands. These were a far cry from the physician’s work expected by his father, and it was this imagination that alienated the young Lewis from his peers. With literature pointing like a telescope to foreign lands, Lewis traded the barns for English towers and, in his own childish verse, soon mastered what Richard Lingeman has termed “Minnesota-Tennyson” (20).

Attending Yale, Lewis wrote for The Courant and Yale Literary Magazine where his verse sang of saints and viziers, Prince Hal and, most well-known, “Launcelot.” As a student he published three poems in the Lit, fourteen in The Courant, and thirty-six in several national publications such as The Outer’s Book and Woman’s Home Companion. In addition, he published seven French and German translations for Transatlantic Tales, including one by Sully Prudhomme, the first Nobel Laureate in Literature. All of these Lewis later disavowed as “banal and imitative verse, all about troubadours and castles as sagely viewed from the eminence of a Minnesota prairie” (Lewis 2005 11). This retrospective, though, forgets at least two trips he made to that other fantastic and mystical place: the German pub. […]

Read the rest here.

John Carter of Minnesota: The “Convict Poet” Who Won His Freedom

Stillwater State Prison c1912

Minnesota State Prison in Stillwater (c. 1912)

“Only the first ten years matter,” a Minnesota State Prison inmate told John Carter, and “[w]hether or not the first ten years are all that matter, there is no doubt that the first six months are by no means six little drops of time.” It was 1905 and as the 19-year-old Carter listened, he settled into his ten year sentence–arrested for burglarizing the station in Karlstad, MN, while hopping trains westward. He’d taken $24 to buy food and shelter.

Not much is known about John Carter—in fact, that’s a penname and the public record’s silent about his personal life. All we know is that he was an Englishman from a well-to-do family, and when he’d failed the family business he was sent to Canada. After he was arrested, like so many who pass through the prison system, Carter was on his way to spending his sentence hidden from the public eye. But this changed as, trying to pass the time, Carter wrote essays and verse, publishing them in the nation’s major magazines. Through his art he won public support and, eventually, even his freedom, leaving the state prison hailed as a brilliant, creative mind.

Continue reading

The Poems of Julius B. Baumann: Five Translations

Julius Baumann grave marker

Julius Baumann’s grave marker in Cloquet, MN, donated by the “Sons of Norway” in 1926.

Some of the best advice for a young poet is to learn translation. It’s the advice Pound gave to Merwin, and it’s the advice Bly gave to me. So, always one to try new things, in the winter of 2014-15 I began translating the work of Norwegian-American poet Julius B. Baumann (1869-1923). Reading up on the Nordic languages (and relying extensively on digital copies of turn-of-the-century Norwegian-English dictionaries) I translated ten pieces from Baumann’s Fra Vidderne: New Poems (Augsburg Publishing House, 1915; Google Books). As far as I know, this is the first time these poems have appeared in English.

To provide a little background on Julius B. Baumann, in 1869 he was born to a family of fishermen in Vadsø, Norway. At the age of twenty he befriended two emigrants who offered to pay his way to the United States, and it was with the young writer’s yearning for life and experience that he left his native land. As a logger in Wisconsin he saw his first pine forest, and it was later as a farmhand in North Dakota where he first gazed upon plains of prairie and wheat. Working in the timber industry for much of his life, in his later years he moved to Cloquet, MN, where he managed a lumber store and served multiple terms as Carlton County’s register of deeds. Continue reading

My review of Bill Berkson’s “Expect Delays” in Rain Taxi Review

expectdelays-181x271My review of Bill Berkson’s latest book of poems, Expect Delays (Coffee House Press, 2014) was published in the Fall 2015 online edition of Rain Taxi Review of Books:

There are few poets writing today with the range and talent of Bill Berkson. The author of more than thirty books of poetry, collaborations, and criticism, his latest volume—Expect Delays—is typical of Berkson’s work in that there is nothing typical about it. One finds here Dante-inspired cantos, New York School-style prose, and excerpts from his diary—and while this gives his book a sense of scatter, it also keeps things fresh. Where other poets find a formula that works and then promptly poison themselves with it, Expect Delays is anything but formulaic.

You can read the full review here.

Joining Sinclair Lewis on the Trip from Main Street to Stockholm

From Main Street to Stockholm: Letters of Sinclair Lewis 1919-1930

“From Main Street to Stockholm: Letters of Sinclair Lewis 1919-1930” edited by Harrison Smith, 1952.

BOOK REVIEW: From Main Street to Stockholm: Letters of Sinclair Lewis 1919-1930 edited by Harrison Smith, 1952 (full text on the Internet Archive).

“[D]on’t be such a damn fool as ever again to go to work for someone else. Start your own business,” the 34-year-old Sinclair Lewis advised his friend Alfred Harcourt. “I’m going to write important books. You can publish them. Now let’s go out to your house and start making plans” (p.xi). That business became the publishing house Harcourt, Brace, and Company, and the next year, in 1920, it published the book that made Lewis famous: Main Street. Thus began the decade-long trip from the prairies of Minnesota to Stockholm, when Lewis was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.

As the only volume of Lewis’ letters, From Main Street to Stockholm was published in 1952, the year after he died, and collects together his correspondence with Harcourt’s publishing house. Given their relationship the letters just as often pertain to business as they do Lewis’ European travels and the politics of the literary world. While the reader may not close the book with a richer understanding of Lewis’ psychology, they will have witnessed an iconoclast at work. Through these letters one follows Lewis through the “Big Five” and the public’s response, from Main Street (1920) being declared the most monumental book of the century to Boston’s District Attorney banning Elmer Gantry (1927) from the city. (As a response to the latter, we find out, Lewis and Harcourt forewent a lawsuit and instead bought billboards capitalizing on the controversy …  at a Methodist convention in Kansas City).

What stands out the most in his letters is his self-confidence and keen sense of what will stick in the public mind. One sees firsthand, for example, the amount of care he took in naming his character. Writing about a middle-class businessman and booster, he considers Pumphrey and later Fitch but at last settles on a name he predicts will enter the lexicon (and it did)!

The name now for my man is George F. Babbitt, which, I think, sounds commonplace yet will be remembered, and two years from now we’ll have them talking of Babbittry (12/17/1920; p.57). 

Here and elsewhere his confidence is prescient. Even while still working on the manuscript for Main Street he doesn’t hide his ambition. Anticipating the book’s success he asks,

Would it be perfectly insane and egotistic to suggest that you .. send a copy of the book to the [Pulitzer] prize committee, suggesting that the dern thing is a study in “the wholesome atmosphere of American life” etc. (11/12/1919; p.18)?

And he’s writing that before the book’s even finished.

“You mustn’t suppose … 70,000 [words of Main Street] means it’s almost done though. I’m afraid I shall be doing well … if I keep it down to 180,000 words, even after cutting first draft” (12/15/1919; p.19).

One shares in Lewis’ joy when at last the book is published and, as he snoops around book stores to eavesdrop on what people are saying, Harcourt is rushing to get more off the press. None of this confidence wanes over the years and by 1925, with the publication of Arrowsmith, Lewis wonders if it will be the book that finally gets him the Nobel Prize. Someday–but he’s still got a few years to go.

Interestingly, for as much as Lewis dreamed of these major prizes almost nothing is said of the two he almost received. As the events unfolded, nothing was said of the fact that both Main Street and Babbitt were chosen by the Pulitzer Prize committee and both were vetoed by the Columbia Board of Trustees that oversee it. It’s only when there are rumors of Arrowsmith winning the prize that he acknowledges these “matters”:

I hope they do award me the Pulitzer Prize on Arrowsmith — but you know, don’t you, that ever since the Main Street burglary, I have planned that if they ever did award it to me, I would refuse it, with a polite but firm letter which I shall let the press have, and which ought to make it impossible for any one ever to accept the novel prize (not the play or history prize) thereafter without acknowledging themselves as willing to sell out. There are three chief reasons — the Main Street and possibly the Babbitt matters, the fact that a number of publishers advertise Pulitzer Prize novels not, as the award states, as “best portraying the highest standard of American morals and manners” or whatever it is but as the in every-way “best novel of the year,” and third the whole general matter of any body arrogating to itself the right to choose a best novel (4/4/1926; p.203).

The next month when it was announced he’d in fact won the prize, that’s exactly what he did. Over the next five years, two more novels followed, their successes culminating in his being awarded the 1930 Nobel Prize in Literature. But upon achieving the success he predicted, it wasn’t enough and he was letdown by how Harcourt handled the news. In one of his last letters to the publisher, he writes as both a disappointed author–and a hurt friend.

To put it brutally, I feel that the firm let me down, let my books down, in regard to the prize award. It seems to me that you failed to revive the sale of my books as you might have and that … you let me down as an author by not getting over to the people of the United States the way in which the rest of the world greeted the award. It would have meant the expenditure of considerable money on your part to have done this, but never in history has an American publisher had such a chance.

… If you haven’t used this opportunity to push my books energetically and to support my prestige intelligently, you never will do so, because I can never give you again such a moment (1/21/1931; p.300-1).

Harcourt’s final words are moving:

I know you have some idea of how sorry I am that events have taken this turn. You and we have been so closely associated in our youth and growth that I wish we might have gone the rest of the way together. If I’ve lost an author, you haven’t lost either a friend or a devoted reader (2/3/1931; p.302).

In the end, the book’s a wonderful case study of the relationship a writer has with their publisher. These letters show us firsthand everything that goes into the writing process, from hard work and support to, yes, an insatiable ego. Turning the last page, one finds they’ve walked with Lewis and Harcourt the long road from Main Street to Stockholm, and even if it ends with a sigh, along the way neither needed to stop to catch their breath.

From Main Street to Stockholm: Letters of Sinclair Lewis 1919-1930 is available for free on the Internet Archive here.