Friday, April 29, 2011


In a letter to Edgar Allan Poe (Cambridge, May 19, 1841), Longfellow wrote: “You are mistaken in supposing that you are not ‘favorably known to me.’ On the contrary, all that I have read, from your pen, has inspired me with a high idea of your power; and you are destined to stand among the first romance-writers of the country, if such is your aim.”

Poe returned the favor the following year with a heavy-handed review of Longfellow’s ‘Ballads and Other Poems’ in Graham’s Lady’s and Gentleman’s Magazine, 20 (March – April, 1842) 189-190; 248-251. “Much as we admire the genius of Mr. Longfellow,” he wrote, “we are fully sensible to his many errors of affectation and imitation. His artistical skill is great, and his ideality high. But his conception of the aims of poesy is all wrong…” Then he picks up a line later, “He has written brilliant poems – by accident; that is to say when permitting his genius to get the better of his conventional habit of thinking – a habit deduced from German study.”
This, as it turns out, is a rather more clear-eyed criticism of Longfellow than Poe will render later, when he becomes absolutely obsessed with the claim that Longfellow was a plagiarist in the matter of the Kalavala and ‘The Song of Hiawatha’.
Edgar’s parents were both actors but his mother died while he was still in infancy. He did endure some poverty for a time but then began to make a name for himself as an editor and critic at the ‘Southern Literary Magazine’. He married his thirteen year old cousin Virginia Clemm. Then, because he tended to drink overmuch, he lost his position at ‘Southern’. His bent toward Romanticism caused his concern with the occult and the satanic. His own feverish dreams seem to have driven him on. He may even have been bi-polar or to have had, as they called it, a double personality. That would certainly explain his bizarre mood swings and obsession with things macabre. His ‘Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym’ is believed to have had an influence on Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick.

Who can forget the first time they read Poe? Whether it was ‘The Raven’ or ‘Masque of the Red Death’ or ‘The Pit and the Pendulum’ – (or ‘The Gold Bug’; ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’; ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’; ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue’; ‘The Cask of Amontillado’) – one can have started almost anywhere and still have the same strong impression; the same strong memory.

‘The Fall of the House of Usher’ begins with a quote by Pierre Jean de Be’ranger from his ‘Le Refus’: “Son Coeur est un luth suspendu; Silot qu on le touché il resonne.” (See accents). Why does Poe choose to begin this dreary Gothic account with such a peculiar epigraph? “His heart,” it reads, “is a suspended lute; which resounds at once when it is touched.” Whose heart resounds – the narrator’s? (Why has Poe changed the quote from ‘My heart’ to ‘His heart’? What does that have to do with a man visiting this “melancholy House of Usher”? One who felt “with the first glimpse of the building, a sense of insufferable gloom…” A man who was forced at the outset to, “…grapple with the shadowy fancies that crowded upon me as I pondered. I was forced to fall back upon the unsatisfactory conclusion, that while, beyond doubt, there are combinations of very simple natural objects which have the power of thus affecting us, still the analysis of this power lies among considerations beyond our depth.”

Poe uses the atmosphere and tone of the work to create an emotional response in his reader, using the first person narration (narrator as character), to forge a bond – to grab hold and not let go until they – narrator and reader – have reached the desired conclusion together. Desired, in any case, by the author, Poe himself.
Roderick Usher had been a boyhood companion, the narrator claims, but it had been years since their last meeting. Then, out of the depths of an oppressive mental and physical disorder a letter arrived asking for a visit. Usher had always been a private soul, so even though they had been close friends in some ways, the narrator claims he didn’t really know him at all. Thus our narrator arrives on horseback at the House of Usher.

The impression of the house itself and the atmosphere surrounding it was that it had been cut off from Heaven’s good graces, and was instead a place of rot and decay. Of death. It was as if the rot had occurred, and was still occurring, but nothing had fallen apart because there was no force; not the slightest force, that could complete the task. The narrator comments, “I felt that I breathed an atmosphere of sorrow.” Certainly this is a world far from the open expanses and good air of wild country.

The Usher he met was quite a different man from the one he remembered. He seemed to believe that the mansion itself controlled his behavior and shaped his destiny. Usher was afflicted, he said, by “a constitutional and family evil…” His sister, the lady Madeline, was also afflicted by this elusive illness. There was, “A settled apathy, a gradual wasting away of the person…” These strange afflictions may have been the result of familial intermarriage, “…the entire family lay in the direct line of decent.”

Poe includes his poem, published earlier, ‘The Haunted Palace’, in which people dance to a lute around a throne upon which the King of the realm sits in all his glory. But some evil “in robes of sorrow” had entered in and now a discordant melody was being played.

There was a poison, it seems, that had gotten down deep into the soul of this place. Was this, perhaps, representative of the Europe of old with her monarchs and traditions; a place that could not change. Or was it something more – a warning – against any form of rigidity in life. Life is supple and spontaneous and animated. Death is rigid, airless, and motionless.

A list of books is included in the tale, a list that proves Usher was fascinated with the occult. The list includes, in part, ‘The Subterranean Voyage of Nicholan Klimm’ by Ludvig Holberg, a novel published originally in Latin. ‘Chiromancy’ by Robert Flud (1574 – 1637), who studied chemistry, medicine, and the occult. ‘Journey into the Blue Distance’ (‘Das alte Buch und die Reise ins Blave hinein’ by Johann Ludwig Tieck (1773-1853). And ‘Directorium Inquisitorum’ by Nicoau Eymerich (1320-1399), the Inquisitor general of the Inquisition of the Crown of Aragon. This ‘Directorium’ defined witchcraft and ways of discovering witches. “Over which,” the narrator claims, “Usher would sit dreaming for hours.”

At this point in the story, Usher informed him that the lady Madeline was no more. He was keeping her corpse hidden away (lest her physician snatch her body – a specimen for medical study). She was, it turns out, his twin. Now Usher roamed about the place aimlessly. “The pallor of his countenance had assumed if possible a more ghastly hue – but the luminousness of his eye had utterly gone out.”

To pass the night as Usher slowly sinks into madness, the narrator chooses to read aloud from an “antique volume” called the ‘Mad Trist of Sir Launcelot Canning’. (This may, in fact, have been another work by Poe, but one which has never yet been discovered). As he reads he hears unusual screaming or grating sounds which correspond, oddly, with the final shriek of the slain dragon in the tale. Then he reads of the sound of a brass shield falling upon a silver floor, and again there is the corresponding sound in the house of Usher.

Now Usher claims that the lady Madeline has been placed in her coffin still alive! (An attempt, perhaps, to keep her entombed just as she is. To keep her from being changed in any way by this stranger’s visit). And there she is now in shrouds, come to bear her brother also off to death. (The only one who could touch Roderick Usher’s suspended lute of a heart was his twin sister).

It had been the narrator’s hope, one thinks, to save his long lost friend. But by entering that world of fantasy and madness, one risks being infected as well. One must escape back into the real, the natural world, if he is to save himself.
The narrator flees and along his path a wild light flashes. He turns to witness the house rent from roof to foundation, and the walls come crashing down – the fall of the house of Usher.

This article (along with Part Two) was first published by The Smoking Poet and is adapted from a chapter from 'American Masters' to be published in September 2012. It is Copyright 2011 By James D. Sanderson. All Rights Reserved.

Friday, April 22, 2011


“How strange and awful it seemed to stand naked under the sky! how delicious! She felt like some new-born creature, opening its eyes in a familiar world that it had never known.” That is a strange and wonderful quote from ‘The Awakening’ by Kate Chopin. I read it some years ago but I’m not sure I really appreciated its worth. Written well over a hundred years ago, it predicts the coming awakening of women in history, but reading it again now I can see how it also predicts the coming experimentation in modern literature. Here is a writer on the cutting edge, in short.

When the book’s main character Edna Pontellier is released from the sweltering heat of New Orleans and from the oppressive hand of her husband, she finds she is not the woman she had thought herself to be. Unlike others of her time, however, she is willing to throw off the constraints of life as a married woman and the mother of her children and explore beyond the bounds that good society will allow. And yet the ‘lesson’ in the story is not what is expected. It is not the tragedy it seems to be on the surface. Rather, it is a story of liberation. A woman’s personal struggle against the ties that bind. And Woman’s struggle in history to break out of the captivity of society’s norms. That seems to be what readers and critics alike objected to. The book was pulled from the shelves of her local (St. Louis) library and she was ostracized for the remaining few years of her life.

One need not be a feminist to appreciate ‘The Awakening’ and as modern readers we need not be shocked by the story it tells. But when I think of what it must have been like for Kate Chopin to write such a beautiful and powerful work so ahead of its time, I also wonder where those writers are today. Now the tide has turned. It is the ‘norm’ to write stories of moral relativity and it is shocking to think that anyone might write from any other perspective. Can anyone still, in these post-modern times, think that God exists? Did not Nietzsche pronounce God’s death? Can anyone still, in these post-modern times, believe that there is a single overarching truth that is worth searching for? Can anyone possibly, in these post-modern times, question the absolute conclusions drawn by the scientific community about the ‘facts’ of evolution over creation? Of course not. To do so would be to draw the ire of readers and critics alike.

Much as Kate Chopin did.

I am continuing to write this weekly experiment in literature from within the creative eye. By that I mean that I am reading and writing and thinking and just plain trying to figure it out as I go along. I write where the words will take me. I experiment with my own thinking so that when I sit down to my own fiction, I have an idea about what I’m doing and why. It takes me into some strange territory sometimes. I will end with a quote from Hermann Hesse: “I wanted only to try to live in accord with the promptings which came from my true self. Why was that so very difficult?”



Friday, April 15, 2011


There is something special about the writing of Toni Morrison right from the start – her first novel was ‘The Bluest Eye’ (1970). Hers is a distinctive voice that draws the reader in. She remains as popular today as when she wrote those first words filled with place and people and color: “…here is the house. It is green and white. It has a red door. It is very pretty. Here is the family. Mother. Father. Dick and Jane live in the green-and-white house. They are very happy. See Jane. She has a red dress…” It reads like something out of that ‘Dick and Jane’ reader from grade school. Then is all runs together into one perplexing Dick and Jane mess. Is it the American Dream unraveled?

Claudia tells the story. She and her sister Frieda. She tells the story of their eleven-year old friend Pecola Breedlove (an astonishing family name) who is carrying her father’s baby; a girl who believes she will only be beautiful if her eyes turn blue. Blue like those blue-eyed, blond, white children who are loved in America. She had no place to stay, so Pecola came to stay with their family – just for a few days until the county could decide what to do with her – until her family was reunited. Her father had “…burned up his house, gone upside his wife’s head, and everybody, as a result, was outdoors.” (Horror of horrors, as everyone knew, was to be left homeless).

“… all the world had agreed that a blue-eyed, yellow-haired, pink-skinned doll was what every girl child treasured.” Here, as with ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ the world is seen through the eyes of a child; except for that blur of Dick and Jane at the head of each chapter echoing like a prolonged scream down through the entire book. She talks about that doll in a way that proves she does not comprehend its value. She knows she is supposed to take it in her arms and hold it – but it is cold and lumpy and scratchy and makes that awful noise that is supposed to sound like ‘Mama’; but in reality all she wants to do is to tear the thing apart so she can get to the place where the secret of its beauty is found. But that, of course, is impossible.

‘The Bluest Eye’ did not receive the recognition the author thought it should, and in fact it took 25 years before it would.

‘Sula’ (1973) picks right up where ‘The Bluest Eye’ (and Ralph Ellison and William Faulkner…) left off. Here, the Medallion City Golf Course is displacing what was one a neighborhood. When black people lived in that neighborhood is was called the Bottom. It is now called the suburbs. The pool hall, the hair stylist, the grill, even the foot bridge over the river are coming down to make room for ‘progress’. Nothing will be left of the old neighborhood when they get done with it.

The Bottom was bottom land promised to a freed slave for some work he did – that’s the ‘bottom’ up in those hills. It was part of a little river town in Ohio that didn’t used to have a name. Nel was born to a manipulative mother and, “Any enthusiasms that little Nel showed were calmed by the mother until she drove her daughter’s imagination underground.”

On the other hand Hannah, Sula’s mother, “… never scolded or gave directions…” Their home was much more comfortable, with lots of people dropping in. Nel and Sula were friends growing up. They stood together. When a group of Irish boys started harassing them, Sula pulled out her mother’s paring knife and sliced the end of her finger to show them she meant business.

Nel got married and settled down with her husband and had three children. Sula, however, left the Bottoms and wandered around in America for ten years. There is something a little stilted and contrived about these early works (compared to her later works). People are catching fire and drowning but there is little emotional attachment, it seems. (Or is it as Flannery O’Connor said about this being the southern reality?) They are not as natural as her later books, ‘Song of Solomon’ (1977) and ‘Beloved’ (1987). Still, one can sense the storytelling mastery that is growing in her work.

‘Song of Solomon’ was cited in awarding its author the Nobel Prize for literature in 1993. Early on she writes, “Just goes to show, they murmured to each other, you never really do know about people.” That’s what people were saying when their insurance agent was up on the roof of Mercy Hospital getting ready to jump with flapping blue wings on. It was as true of him as it was of any other character in that novel. It is true of all the characters wandering the streets of anywhere right now. You just don’t know about people.

“The next day a colored baby was born inside Mercy for the first time.” This was Macon Dead III who would later become known as ‘Milkman’ because he was breastfed for so long his feet were “… touching the floor.”

The trouble is, not only do you not know about people; most of the time people do not even know about themselves. Milkman spends a great deal of time in this novel trying to discover who he is and just where he fits in the history of his people.

His best friend, Guitar, comes to believe Milkman has cheated him, and threatens several times to kill him. In ‘Song’ as in all her novels, Toni Morrison is confronting the long-term consequences of that peculiar institution – slavery. The effects of slavery have been deep and are passed on from generation to generation. And the high-point of her examinations reside in her next novel, ‘Beloved’. Some claim that ‘Song’ is a better novel than ‘Beloved’, but really the comparison elevates both – they are both that good. If one had to choose, ‘Beloved’ edges ‘Song’ out by a whisker.

The Pulitzer Prize winning novel ‘Beloved’, you see, is a culmination of this extraordinary writer’s life work and is extraordinary itself for that reason. “Sixty Million and more,” reads its epigraph. It is unclear exactly how many people died as a result of the slave trade in American history – the number could be much higher. The practice of slavery, the participation in it, the horror of it, has left a deep stain on American history. Can Americans ever truly face the past of witchcraft trials and the extermination of indigenous peoples, and the institution of slavery and the exploitation of workers and women and find repentance? Or will Americans, like so many others, indulge in a continued mass amnesia that allows forward motion into the future, without ever allowing for a change of direction? Well, if it is up to writers like Toni Morrison, no one will be allowed to forget.

In her Forward to ‘Beloved’ Morrison relates, in thumbnail fashion, the story of Margaret Garner, also known as Peggy, an escaped slave woman who killed her two year old daughter (and attempted to kill the others), to prevent her from being returned to slavery. She and her husband Robert escaped across the river from Kentucky and made it to the home of a relative near Cincinnati, Ohio. There, slave catchers and police cornered them. Garner killed her daughter with a butcher knife and was preparing to kill the others and herself when she was apprehended. Her case became a landmark for the Abolitionist movement and the opposition to the fugitive slave laws, (which forced the return of escaped slaves to their owners). It was also inspiration for ‘Beloved’.

‘Beloved’, then, is the story of an escaped slave woman, Sethe, who killed her daughter, Beloved. She now lives with her daughter Denver in the house at 124 Bluestone where the crime was committed and which is now haunted. Her boys, Howard and Buglar ran away from home at age thirteen, secretly fearing their mother might one day kill them as well.

Paul D, also a former slave, arrived one day and sees how things have stagnated there in that house. “What kind of evil you got in here?” he asked. Not evil, she assured him, but the strong presence of her long lost daughter. Still, Paul D sees it as his duty to bring them all back into the real world of solid and present events, leaving the past behind them where it belonged. He took them to a carnival over near Cincinnati. When they returned a young woman with a broken hat was there in front of the house. When asked her name she replied, “Beloved”. Then she spelled it out slowly. She slept four days, only sitting up to take some water.

“This girl Beloved, homeless and without people, beat all, though he (Paul) couldn’t say exactly why, considering the colored-people he had run into during the last twenty years. During, before and after the War he had seen Negroes so stunned, or hungry, or tired or bereft it was a wonder they recalled or said anything. Who, like him, had hidden in caves and fought owls for food; who, like him, stole from pigs; who, like him, slept in trees in the day and walked at night; who, like him, had buried themselves in slop and jumped in wells to avoid regulators, raiders, paterollers, veterans, hill men, posses and merry-makers.”

Who was this young creature with the babyish features and the new look about her? She could be the girl who had been locked up by a white man over Deer Creek way. Or could she be, could she possibly be the very daughter, killed by her mother’s hand, that they all wanted her to be – come back in some supernatural form? Or was she, somehow, the personification of all the horrors of all those years and years and years when white slave owners held captive and did as they pleased with black human beings who were their slaves?

There are times when a story is so full of truth that it simply is – it simply tells itself in a powerful way without the need of fancification or ornamentation. That is the story of Beloved. Whether or not that child that shows up at 124 Bluestone was the child that was killed, or some other, simply does not matter. She is the specter of the past that is very real and will not go away until it has somehow been ‘exorcised’ by the entire community.

The storytelling did not end with her Nobel Prize, either. Picking up ‘A Mercy’ (2008), the reader knows once again he or she is in the hands of a master storyteller. This novel takes place in the 1680’s America of the religious divisions, the class divisions, the prejudice and oppression of the early slave trade that was just beginning to take root. Jacob, an Anglo-Dutch trader and adventurer takes a small slave girl named Florens, in payment for a debt. He did not normally deal in ‘the flesh’. Florens has the hands of a slave but the feet of a Portuguese lady. Her feet are not tough enough to withstand the rigors of this world. She was a daughter that had been cast off by her mother in order to save her. (Looking back with Ms. Morrison, one wonders how anyone had the strength to withstand the rigors that early America required.)

John Updike wrote a review of ‘A Mercy’ (‘Dreamy Wilderness’ The New Yorker, November 3, 2008) in which he writes, “Toni Morrison has a habit, perhaps traceable to the pernicious influence of William Faulkner, of plunging into the narrative before the reader has a clue to what is going on.”
“… in time we come to comprehend that it is 1690 in Virginia, and that the narrator is a sixteen-year-old black girl called Florens, who was, at her mother’s plea, impulsively adopted, eight years ago, by a white proprietor (“Sir” to Forens), in partial settlement of a debt owed him by an insolvent slave owner from Portugal called “Senhor.”

Mr. Updike concludes with this observation: “Varied and authoritative and frequently beautiful though the language is, it circles around a vision, both turgid and static, of a new world turning old and poisoned from the start.”

Adapted from 'American Masters'. Copyright 2011 by James D. Sanderson.
All Rights Reserved.

Friday, April 8, 2011


During my first visit to the Louvre in Paris, in the early 1970’s, I became transfixed by a certain statue. It was Antonio Canova’s neoclassical work ‘Psyche Revived by Cupid’s Kiss’. I couldn’t believe the impression the softness of the white marble made upon me as I gazed at that winged son of Aphrodite meeting in a kiss that most beautiful of women – Psyche. I can still see, in my mind’s eye, the lightness with which Cupid descends upon her, supporting her with his left arm across her breasts and his right cradling her head. How her arms reach up for him. How their lips are only the merest moment past touching together. He has awakened her lifeless form. She is his!

The tale of Eros and Psyche has always fascinated me. An old woman tells the tale in the second century AD ‘The Golden Ass’ by Lucius Apuleius. It is the story of a most beautiful girl named Psyche who has caused envy and jealousy to grow in the goddess Aphrodite. Spitefully she calls upon her son Eros, or Cupid, to use one of his golden arrows while she sleeps to cause the girl to fall in love with the vile creature she will place there when she awakes. (Because of the arrow’s magic, she will fall in love with the first one she sees).

Cupid himself becomes invisible as he surreptitiously enters her room so no one will be able to see him. He intends to scratch her shoulder with his arrow but she awakens and looks directly into his eyes; seeing through his invisibility. Cupid is so startled he scratches himself with the arrow instead and falls madly in love with Psyche. When he reports what has happened to his mother, Aphrodite is enraged. She places a curse on the girl, so that she will never be able to find a husband for herself. Cupid, for his part, refuses then to use his arrows. No one falls in love. No one marries. No one has children. The earth begins to grow old.

At last Aphrodite relents and lets Cupid go to the girl. The story has many more twists and turns, but the part that intrigues me is the coming together of the earthly and the divine. The material and the spiritual. The two aspects of humankind. Together they have a daughter – Voluptas – the goddess of sensual pleasures.

I always wanted to write the story anew, but could never find a way to do it. I wanted to capture Eros reviving Psyche with that divine kiss. But how does an artist express such a theme in a new way? Whenever I outlined or sketched out a plot it either sounded like the same old story retold, or was so far from the original as not to make any sense whatever. That was the state of things until, one day; I came upon the idea of a man meeting his beautiful and now earth-bound guardian angel. If such an arrangement could be made in a very realistic way… say, being forced to travel together, they might just fall in love. They might just bring heaven and earth together in a very real and believable way.


That was the first moment of ‘The Angelic Mysteries’. (Due out August 18th).

Friday, April 1, 2011


Roland Barthes, too, studies the deep narrative structures in writing and finds that there are five ways of organizing text and that every narrative is interwoven with these various codes. Rather than trying to make a text conform to the Freitag triangle (beginning, rising action, climax, denouement), we can think outside the standard plot line. We can think like writers rather than like readers. In nonfiction (I am adding the context here – not Barthes), the organizational structure might be found in a series of modules that are tied together by various interconnecting webs of information. No one module is self-contained, but rather relies on others to enhance meaning.

My most recent reading has led me to Peter Brooks – especially his ‘Reading for the Plot’. Readers, he believes, are affected by the stories they read in very intimate ways. A desire is built in the reader to find the end and then to tell the story to someone else – to pass it on. (Built-in viral marketing, if we wanted to take it that way). They become caught up in the tale that must be told and re-told.

I am not at all sure that I have managed to capture all of these various aspects of language and plotting in ‘American Masters’ my popular narrative of American literature, but all were certainly in mind as I struggled with the text. The schema I worked from began with a deep underlying structure (an outline not of linear progression; though the work does follow the historical occurrence of authors and their works – but of a series of modules and how they might be tied together); then with a more linear and normal chronological reading; then writing at a more symbolic level; then a mythological level; and finally at the labyrinthine level which includes puzzles, word play, neologisms and what-not. As you can see, ‘American Masters’ is more than a simple story about our authors and their stories. It is an attempt at a new form of nonfiction that goes far beyond the so-called New Journalism of Capote, Hunter Thompson, and Tom Wolfe.

I do hope I have managed to convey these thoughts clearly. I certainly will entertain your questions and comments either below or on my Facebook site. Your input is very welcome. Thanks for bearing with me.