The book’s private journey through many hands and homes

The best part of buying a used book is the history that comes with it. Tucked in the pages, one finds photographs and letters used as bookmarks; on the inside cover and in the margins, long inscriptions to, from, about. It’s true the printed text pulls us into the life of the author, but it’s these little discoveries that pull us into the life of the book. Suddenly, the physical paper in our hands is given its own life. We are not its first owners, and as all things come and go, we know we will not be its last. Our shelf is merely one stop on its private journey through many hands and homes.

Charles Bukowski Post Office Marginalia Emily C Frederick

The inscription and obituary of Emily C. Frederick

As someone who’s owned plenty of used books, I’ve come across all kinds of interesting examples of marginalia. For example, a few months ago I purchased from the Book House in Dinkytown a copy of Bukowski’s Post Office (1971). In it was inscribed “WET KISSES,” signed “Emily.” Right above it on faded yellow paper dated May 10, 1983, was her obituary. What I held in my hands was more than a book: at one time, it was a shrine. Continue reading

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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.”

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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.