Sunday, November 24, 2013

Grace Harlowe's college years

Grace Harlowe's First Year at Overton College
Grace Harlowe's Second Year at Overton College
Grace Harlowe's Third Year at Overton College
Grace Harlowe's Fourth Year at Overton College

Josephine Chase dba Jessie Graham Flower

The story of Grace Harlowe's college years, as told in a series of four books, follows a series about Grace in high school, and proceeds two further series about her adult life. No longer in print, these pulp books for girls were published a century ago and are rather undistinguished as literature. Author Josephine Chase also wrote the Marjorie Dean series, with equally pedestrian titles and equally tun-of-the-mill plots and characters. This was the era when the genre of the college novel flourished, with iterations ranging from the literarily ambitious to this - novels by formula for a young audience that wanted exactly more of the same.

It's not a reflection on the era, of course, or even the age of the readers. The Sweet Valley novels that reigned during my childhood years were equally formulaic, while some girls' novels of a century ago featured fully developed characters that grew and changed over time. Not Grace or Marjorie! Then again, the girls wouldn't be able to change, at least not for the better, as they start off their series as the implausibly ideal girl. Grace might have a weak thought every now and again, but she would never act on it, and her friends all look up to her as an example.

In her book on campus life, Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz describes the difference between the well-off, for whom affording college is not a struggle, and the ambitious poor, who must attend to secure a living - what she calls the college joe versus the greasy grind. Most of this struggle is invisible in the lighter college fare for children. Generally there is one poor friend, yet she somehow rarely struggles to keep up with her gang. But social difference does rear its head briefly in the Grace Harlowe series. Grace discovers a group of poor students living in a cheap, unpleasant boarding hall and forms an organization of students to raise funds for their aid. The aid is delivered anonymously, and most of it is given as loans. While the poor students go without necessities such as gloves, their patrons buy fabric and trimmings to make elaborate costumes for their fund-raisers. "It doesn't seem fair that I should have had such good times when so many girls here have nothing but hard work and worry over money matters," Grace says in her senior year. Not incidentally, these girls are "digs" who study hard and enjoy few of the pleasures of college life.

Even with additional funds and anonymous gifts of accessories, though, these poor students remain in a separate world. Class and money are addressed nearly directly at one point when Arline, an especially wealthy student, stays on campus for Christmas and serves as the anonymous benefactor of social outings for the poorer girls. On Christmas day they dine at two local restaurants regularly patronized by the wealthier girls - the first time for most of the poor digs. Arline comments to her friends afterward about how difficult it was to socialize with them because of these differences.

Much is made in college novels of the 19th and early 20th centuries of "doing something" for ones college (as well as one's class year) - in the more serious novels as well. Playing basketball, holding charitable events - these are "doing something." One can only assume the students at Overton who don't have the time or money to do for are thereby taking from the college, but doing nothing for it.

This brief flash of class consciousness aside, other forms of diversity don't appear. The students are, to a number, Christian, white, and female. (The last of these is to be expected at a woman's college, which Overton is.) The institutions of the era were not diverse, but the erasure of all diversity is still problematic.

In short, these books create a pretty, pleasant fantasy world, at least for those girls who can imagine themselves to be inside of it. They're amusing and, almost, harmless.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

The Collected Stories

Leonard Michaels
The Collected Stories
I came across Leonard Michaels in Stanley Fish’s How to Read a Sentence (And How to Write One), where Fish discusses Michaels’ short story “Honeymoon,” and, exceeding his self-imposed boundaries, muses on much more than its opening sentence. I wanted to read “Honeymoon” for myself and ordered up his Collected Stories.

Michaels was a writer of literary fiction, with all that entailed in the mid- to late-twentieth century, a New York Jew who became a California professor. The stories as collected are arranged roughly in chronological order, which means the first half of the book is mostly tales of Jewish men struggling with shiksa women. Frankly, his anxieties are not that different from those of a Roth or an Updike, and therefore somewhat tiresome to a later generation. (Women are not a strange species who exist only to cause confusion and discomfort in men. If “modern” swinging love makes you unhappy, give it up and just do what makes you happy. Etc.)

But his writing is at times splendid and not easy to take. The book’s opening salvo is the story of a college woman who is raped and then commits suicide. It is at no point graphic, but it is brutal.

I recently read Paul Haines’ final collection of short stories, The Last Days of Kali Yuga. (This is not a digression.) Haines wrote horror – most of it not creepy, suggestive horror, but bloodspatter and entrail-waving horror. His stories are fine; some of them even won awards. None of them hold a candle to his brilliant novella “Wives,” which closes out the book. “Wives,” strictly speaking, isn’t horror; it’s speculative fiction, in which the only “speculative” part is changes in social structure. There is no hint of the fantastical, mythical, phantasmagorical, eldritch, unearthly, or divine in it, but simply a graphic critique of patriarchy.

Where Haines’ career would have gone if he had lived longer is unknowable, but “Wives” suggests he was finding his true m├ętier with longer fiction. The second-best thing he wrote was his blog, in which he unflinchingly discussed his cancer and the family he would soon be leaving behind.

What he would not have become was Leonard Michaels. Michaels, unlike Haines, lived a long life, although his career was short – several short-story collections and two novels, one of which was a success. The novels do not hold up well.

But the short stories – his short stories are more truly horror than any of Haines’ tales of backpackers with cruel knives, despite that they are “realistic” literary fiction. Each brief story is a slim-tipped needle that sinks into your skin easily and leaves your bleeding. At least, this is the case for the first two-thirds of the collection.

Somewhere past the halfway point the horror stops and the stories become rather banal tales of modern men going to modern parties with their girlfriends, usually of a different ethnicity or religious persuasion, and modernly taking drugs and having exhausting, modern, unjoyous sex with partners not of their own choosing. Things do pick up near the end with his Nachman stories – less sex and drugs, more math and Asperger’s. Somewhere in here, too, his women turn into human beings, even if not likeable ones.

Haines also would never have become Michaels because his stories, for all that they feature white male protagonists, are highly critical of the patriarchy and sexism that is taken for granted in Michaels. Haines, nearly literally, puts women in refrigerators, but he does so to a purpose. Michaels would never do anything so pulpy, but he seems to sincerely believe that is where women belong. David Bezmozgiz in Tablet magazine seems somewhat mystified that his friend and mentor isn’t better known. I could tell him why, but I don’t think he’d understand, any more than Michaels himself did.

Monday, November 11, 2013


Wanderlust: A History of Walking
Rebecca Solnit

I first discovered Rebecca Solnit at the Vanderbilt library when I was looking for something else entirely, picking up Savage Dreams based almost entirely on its title. I knew something about Yosemite, less about protests, and nothing at all about nuclear tests over Nevada, but the book was compelling nevertheless. Like John McPhee, she writes creative nonfiction that leaps from subject to subject, but unlike him, she is present in her books, even though they aren't about her, as a minor, first-person narrator.

Wanderlust is about all kinds of walking - that of the flaneur, the rambler, the pilgrim, the landscape consumer, the protestor, the distance walker; in the city and the wilderness; for health, for anonymity, for escape, for fashion, for spiritual growth; about walking alone, walking together, and not walking at all. Compared to Savage Dreams, this is territory I know.

McPhee's books tend to be much more focused; Solnit is a bricoleur, astonishingly well-read and wide-ranging, editorializing and making observations that, only after hearing, become obvious. Consider: "Among the terms for prostitutes are streetwalkers, women of the streets, women on the town, and public women (and of course phrases such as public man, man about town, or man of the streets mean very different things than do their equivalents attached to women). … Had a group of women called themselves the Sunday Tramps, as did a group of Leslie Stephen's male friends, the monicker would have implied not that they went walking but that they engaged in something rather salacious on Sundays."

At other times she is simply acerbic, which is pleasant if one agrees with her: "Cities like Albuquerque, Phoenix, Houston, and Denver may or may nor have a dense urban core floating somewhere in their bellies like a half-digested snack…"

The thesis of the book is that the experience of walking is different depending on where you walk and why you walk - perhaps rather obvious, but she breaks it down. To whom is walking for leisure available? How does intent shape the experience of walking? As a consumer of hiking literature, I have read quite a few paeans to walking that glorify nature, preferably untrammeled, at the expense of urbanity, but Solnit's is more catholic, praising the woods, formal gardens, and dense urban cores alike. Its polar opposite is Cheryl Strayed's lovely Wild, which is an intense, highly personal illumination of one particular individual experiencing one kind of walking. (City walkers, in their turn, seem to suggest they consider any place else a bore.)

If one likes walking, Wanderlust is full of trivia that will enhance one's reputation with fellow enthusiasts. "Did you know," you can say at your next dinner party, "that the treadmill was invented a a tool to break the will of prisoners?" And if your guests are sociologists, follow up by drawing a parallel between it and the Panopticon, both of which modern society embraces. But as entertaining as the trivia is, the book is more worth reading for the connections it draws across and through ideas.