An Unheralded Gem: Mary Wilkins Freeman - Michael Sacks

There are plenty of good writers who are not famous.  One such writer is Mary Wilkins Freeman. Freeman (1852 – 1930) was an American writer who wrote several remarkable novels and short stories. Her novels include Pembroke (1894), The Jamesons (1899), and The Shoulders of Atlas (1908).

Freeman’s novels are well-regarded by literary scholars, and some of her short stories are even more critically acclaimed. Freeman’s most celebrated short stories include “A Humble Romance” (1884) and “A New England Nun” (1887).  Many of Freeman’s short stories were published initially in periodicals and were subsequently collected in book form.

Freeman’s works frequently depict the integrity, the humility, and the independence of people in the small towns of New England.  The characters often face moral dilemmas, and the events usually reveal the inherent goodness of the protagonists.  Her characters are often poor financially, yet rich spiritually.  Freeman affirms the unassailable dignity of her humble characters.

“A Humble Romance” recounts the story of Sally and Jake Russell.  Sally, a shy yet courageous and determined woman, marries Jake, a traveling salesman, after Jake rescues Sally from a life of servitude.  The marriage goes smoothly – until Jake’s former wife (whom he believed had died) resurfaces.  The ex-wife (who had cheated on Jake) tries to blackmail Jake into getting back together with her.  The ex-wife threatens to expose Jake as a bigamist if he does not give her what she wants.  Jake handles the situation so deftly that he remains loyal to Sally while also preventing a scandal from arising.

“A New England Nun” tells the story of Louisa Ellis.  Louisa is described as a “nun” in a figurative sense of the word because of her devotion to an ascetic lifestyle.  Louisa is engaged to Joe Dagget.  Joe has just returned to New England after 14 years in Australia, where he went to make a fortune.  Having achieved his goal, Joe believes that he can support Louisa financially, so they plan to embark on their marriage.  However, the relationship between Joe and Louisa faces two obstacles.  Joe has developed feelings for Lily Dyer, who takes care of Joe’s mother.  Meanwhile, Louisa has grown accustomed to being single and has become set in her ways.  Though she still likes Joe, Louisa perceives marriage as a threat to “her happy solitary life.”  Louisa and Joe call off the engagement, and the story ends happily for both of them.

Mary Wilkins was born in 1852 in Massachusetts.  Her maiden name is Wilkins; her married name is Freeman.  Wilkins grew up in Randolph, Massachusetts, a suburban city located about 15 miles south of Boston.  She and her family moved to Vermont and lived there for a few years before returning to Randolph.

Wilkins eschewed marriage for a long time – until she was 49.  Mary Wilkins married Dr. Charles Freeman in 1902.  The couple moved to Metuchen, New Jersey, where they embarked on a marriage that proved to be strenuous.  Charles Freeman’s alcoholism and mental instability took a heavy toll on their relationship.  The couple divorced in 1922.

Mary Wilkins Freeman died of a heart attack in 1930 at age 77.  Her work endures and remains available to readers today.

The collected works of Freeman are available at wilkinsfreeman.info.  This collection provides an invaluable resource for anyone who enjoys good literature.

Two of the best critical studies of Freeman and her work are the following: Mary Wilkins Freeman by Perry Westbrook (1967) and In a Closet Hidden: The Life and Work of Mary E. Wilkins Freeman by Leah Blatt Glasser (1996).

Although she is not particularly famous nowadays, Freeman was a household name during her lifetime.  Her fame peaked in the 1890s.  In the introduction to The Best Stories of Mary E. Wilkins (1927), Henry Wysham Lanier describes Freeman’s popularity in the following way: “To one who was a reader in the [1890s], it seems almost ludicrous to ‘introduce’ Mary E. Wilkins. (Just a little like introducing Babe Ruth anywhere in the United States, in these latter days!)”  One should keep in mind that Lanier made this comparison in 1927 – the year in which Ruth hit 60 home runs and helped the New York Yankees win the World Series.

Freeman received several prestigious honors for her work, including the William Dean Howells Medal for Distinction in Fiction.  In 1926, Freeman was inducted into the National Institute of Arts and Letters.

These honors are fitting forms of recognition for Mary Wilkins Freeman, a writer of extraordinary quality.

Murder, She Wrote - Laura Shea

Recently, I published my second mystery novel, entitled Murder at the People’s Theater.  Mystery fiction is generally divided into two categories, the hard-boiled and the cozy.  Typically, the hard-boiled detective is a solitary figure who walks the mean and often rain-swept streets of a major city in pursuit of justice, whatever that means in the morally relative—at times, corrupt—universe that the detective inhabits.  Traditionally, that city is Los Angeles, but at this point, pick anywhere on the map.

This investigator acts according to a moral code from which he—or she—never waivers.   The violence committed by the perpetrator or by the detective is right there on the page (and in this context, it can be hard to tell them apart), as is the sexual content of the novel.  Although the detective may be a solitary figure, living and working alone, the investigator does take time out for a liaison or two, often with someone who may or may not be in handcuffs at the conclusion of the case.  The hard-boiled detective bears the scars of this profession, which can include not only physical injuries but the deeper emotional wounds that take longer to heal.  And there is often a more-than-medicinal dose of alcohol to lubricate the lonely nights experienced by an individual who still operates according to a clear sense of right and wrong, at times hampered by a justice system that appears to have forgotten the difference.

Murder at the People’s Theater falls under the category of cozy.  Here is a synopsis:

Taking a break from the academic life, Erica Duncan starts a new job in the producer’s office at the prestigious People’s Theater but soon discovers that the position holds more drama than expected.  In search of its next big hit, the theater is presenting Michelangelo: The Musical, focusing on the life and loves of the artist.  When an unassuming co-worker is found murdered in the theater lobby, her body posed in a copy of Michelangelo’s The Creation of Man, this is the kind of publicity that the show does not need.  At the People’s Theater, Erica assumes the role of detective, never an easy part, especially in a place when almost everyone is an actor, and self-invention is a way of life.   Murder at the People’s Theater is also a story of mothers and children, from Michelangelo and his mother, and the actors who play them, to the birth mother who has no interest in being found by the daughter she gave up for adoption 20 years earlier.

The cozy is supposed to serve up a more “genteel” form of murder.  Violence is underplayed and sexual activity can be suggested but occurs offstage.  This detective is often an amateur, unlike the hard-boiled detective for whom it’s not just a job but a life.  The amateur and, at times, unwilling detective holds tight to a moral compass that directs her—or him—to do the right thing, even when deterred or actively discouraged by those who insist that he or she move on, nothing to see here.

The detective in a cozy could well be risking his or her (day) job but still persists, even when faced with polite but pointed threats to life and limb.  The hard-boiled detective may work alone, but the detective in cozy fiction is part of a community: a theater or a college are two that spring immediately to my mind.   Essential to the cozy is an understanding of the world in which the mystery unfolds, the code by which this culture operates providing an essential clue to the solution of the mystery itself.

In the twenty-first century, we have come a long way from the cozy being the exclusive domain of ladies who sip tea at garden parties and wear funny hats.  Hard-boiled fiction, considered the more masculine genre, has been taken more seriously in part because it is more serious: unlike the sometimes humorous approach to murder in a cozy, there are not a lot of laughs in the cynical and world-weary perspective of the typical hard-boiled detective.  But it would be inaccurate to suggest that the cozy is a “kinder, gentler” form of murder.

Yes, the detective usually emerges from the experience physically unharmed, but the same cannot be said for the murder victim, who still dies a violent death at the hands of another.  (Based on my first two novels, I have a thing for head wounds, apparently, something I had not noticed until recently.)   And the cozy does what all mysteries do:  after the murder, we learn unflattering information about the victim in order to shift the emphasis from sympathy for the deceased to solving the case.

Making the victim less sympathetic cannot change or erase the fact that we have someone who has been handed a punishment far worse that the wrongs, real or imagined, that he or she may have committed because someone has decided to serve as judge, jury, and executioner.  But the point of the exercise, for both the amateur and the professional detective, as well as the reading audience, is to solve the crime, so that is where the emphasis should be.

Finding Something Brilliant to Write About - Amy Stackhouse

Students often ask how to come up with a paper topic. It’s a really good question, especially when we don’t have a lot of experience coming up with our own topics — when we are used to someone telling us what to write about — it can be daunting. We want to write something profound, insightful, and “right.” We don’t want to look stupid.

So, where do we begin?

First, we throw out the idea that we are being judged. This is good advice for life, too.

When I was young, my mom used to tell me the world didn’t revolve around me. (I found myself saying that to my children when I had them.) It sounds like you’re being told not to be selfish, but, in fact, what you’re being told is that while you are the protagonist of your own narrative, so everyone else is the protagonist of his or her own. People aren’t paying as much attention to you as you think they are. Believe it or not, when a professor is reading your paper, they are thinking about ways to help you, to make your writing or your argument stronger, not about how smart or stupid you are.

Let that knowledge free you.

Forget about being profound and insightful for a minute, too.

If you are an athlete or an artist of any sort, you know that you can’t perform if you are overthinking your performance. To do well, you need to let go of your consciousness of yourself. You need to be in the groove, in the flow.

It’s the same thing with writing.

If you spend your energy trying to sound smart or trying to figure out how to get an A on this paper, you will not do a good job and you certainly will not have a good time.

A good time? Yes. A good time.

Imagine you are sitting with your friends having a conversation about something you are all interested in. This should be your model for writing a paper and it is where you want to begin to find your paper topic.

What interests you?

If you are being asked to write about a piece of literature and you get to choose the text you write about, do not try to figure out 1) what text your professor likes best; 2) what would be easiest; 3) what would be most impressive; 4) what your friend is writing about; 5) what has the best secondary sources.

Start with what interests you. What text did you like? Or hate? What got your attention, your interest? What moved you? Pick a text you find most interesting. If you’re really gushing about all of the texts you’ve read for a class, just close your eyes and point. Do not spend a lot of time stressing about the perfect text to write about. There’s no such thing. Just pick one you find interesting.

You don’t need to know your thesis at this point.

Your next step is to ask yourself what you liked or didn’t like about it. In other words, why did you pick this text? (If you tried to cheat by skipping the previous step or by choosing a text based on 1, 2, 3, 4, or 5 above, you’ve already shot yourself in the foot. Go back and do it right.)

Write down your thoughts about what you liked or didn’t like. Open the book, the play, the poem, the screenplay, the graphic novel… Pick out examples of the things you liked or didn’t like. Write them down.

Once you’ve written down everything you liked or didn’t like or found curious, step back and look at what you’ve written. Is there a theme? A focus? Get creative. Can you find connections between some of the things you’ve listed? If you can, you’ve got your topic. It might not be a thesis yet. It might not be fully formed. But it’s starting to take shape.

If it isn’t obvious to you at this point what you should be writing about, show your list to someone else, preferably someone who is familiar with the text.

Your professor would be a good choice. Find out his or her office hours and show up. Bring the notes your just wrote. (By the way, your professor will be very impressed by your smarts if you do this. He or she will have plenty of good things to say about you, your initiative,  your thoughtfulness, your enthusiasm, your organization skills and all those things your future employers will want to hear about. In other words, your professor will be able to write you much better letters of recommendation if you show up to his or her office hours and talk about your thought process and ask questions.)

Often talking about your ideas with someone else will help you figure out what you want to say about your topic.

M. Forster once said, “How do I know what I think until I see what I say?” He was right. Putting it on paper, bouncing it off another person, these are techniques for knowing what you think. Once you’ve got that, you’re well on your way to writing a brilliant, insightful paper.

Writing on Paper - T.J. Moretti

#howIwrite

I like to write. I haven’t published much, so I wouldn’t call myself a “writer,” certainly not a poet, though I started writing things when I wrote poems to cope in junior high. They were cheesy love poems for my first or second crush. Rejected, I wrote more poetry, either sighed a lot, or (more likely) bingewatched Video JukeBox until Green Jelly’s “Three Little Pigs” or Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” or Dr. Dre and Snoop Dog’s “Nothin but a G Thang” came on (YouTube it all, folks), or (just as likely) gorged myself on Super Nintendo or Genesis games to prepare for my first year in high school.

I don’t have those poems anymore. Don’t ask.

I wrote those poems on paper because it wasn’t until my second year in high school that I learned how to type on a computer and format a document.

I still write on paper whenever I can: poems, drafts of short stories, character sketches, ideas for novels, dreams, parts of an academic essay. I didn’t write this post on paper, I admit, but I tend toward paper, because writing on paper helps me remember what I wrote, what I changed.

My last writing: I wrote a poem for an Advent booklet distributed through Iona’s Office of Mission and Ministry. I started it on paper. Take a look at a section of an early draft.

See how messy it gets? I cut here, squeezed there, interrupted myself twice. I look back and flinch at some of my early word choices, like “numbing cold,” (like really, I could have done something else there, I mean, there was no need for me to even write that phrase down).

When I write on Word or Google Docs, I lose a history of those edits, those lessons in real-time, those signs that I was really thinking hard, really struggling to find meaning in an image, to find meaning at all. (I could just use “Track Changes,” but all the colors and lines seem too messy for me to untangle).

I don’t keep all drafts of all my writings. I’ve scrapped drafts of articles that have been published, or early, terrible versions of dissertation chapters that took my advisor hours to edit. I don’t feel the need to hold onto that history.

The poems, though, and the short stories, and the ideas for stories, and any drafts of unfinished scholarly articles demand that I document the changes, in the body of the writing or in the margins.

I want a written record of those changes.

I don’t want to tap “Backspace” or “Delete” to erase the history of my thought-process, my habits of mind, my search for meaning in art and my search for art in meaning.

Those writings demand that I take stock of my work, that I study the documents of their past, that I learn from those documents what I thought, felt, or thought I felt.

I need to write on paper to remember.

I can still write on Word and still make the final version permanent, but I find myself in the quirks of the drafts. Without a record, I don’t have a way to remember the quirks I changed, even if I can notice in the permanent version those quirks I can’t change. Take, for example, the final version of my advent poem:

The Advent Wreath: A Vigil

You fear what the dark means,

or might, you don’t know enough

to know why the holly, why the pine,

why four candles on a wreath

when coal for boys and girls

gone bad, born to the bad they know,

they know not, they know not what

they know.

Round and round

trace a bruise around an eye or wrist,

purples wrenched from pinks,

hope numbed cold.

Round and round loop the yarn by a lamp

near a hearth into stockings empty for more

quick picks, scratch offs, Crayola wax

to waste on stick-figure-family smiles

and North Pole lists next to Guida and Oreos

on the oak veneer table.

Round and round the barrel bomb

in Aleppo once, twice, more than three,

smote your peace.

Your hara feels what the dark means,

what excretes through pancreatic ducts

toward your right, your core—

call it your duodenum—

for food that feeds your life for more

than round and round until aground.

A square of candles, vertices on a circle of pine.

Light one, two, the third, four the sum.

Purples into a pink to purple,

you see in flickers—

dawn rays through dew on hydrangeas,

there is a peony—

the halo like a white oak

aspiring from winter’s ground

to rival the snow: I will green again.

Wax melts and puddles and sets

into the wounds of the world.

The wreath, the pine,

the wicks aflame,

the mess below,

or nest, a womb, dark aglow,

you know you know

you hope you know

See? Nothing I can change there, even in stanzas 2 and 3, which really need work. And stanza 1…

Well, I could edit this blog post, I suppose—take a screenshot of before and after or something. But that just sounds like so much work, you know?

Why English? - Anna Clark

Anna Clark

Often when I ask my students why they chose an English major, they’ll tell me stories about how in middle school Harry Potter seemed more real than their best friend, or how they’ve compulsively written short fiction since the second grade. I love such answers. They make English feel like destiny. For these students, the question isn’t why major in English, but why major in anything else. Passionate and determined, they’ve long known English was it.

For others, though, the decision to study English is a bit more fraught. After all, what do you tell your parents? Harry Potter and short fiction are great, but they’re not going to pay rent. What exactly can you do with an English major?

 

I was one of these others. I too have always loved reading and writing, I too found friends in books, but I’m also pragmatic to a fault. As a kid, I would reply to the “what do you want to be” question with “actuary!” or “orthodontist!” My ambitions were always firmly tethered to reality. By the time I reached high school, I knew I’d be a doctor—a cardiologist, to be exact. I started volunteering at a hospital; I watched The X-Files for gory autopsy scenes; I imagined myself with a white lab coat and stethoscope, professional, serene, gainfully employed.

So what changed? For one thing, when I got to college, I discovered I didn’t actually enjoy science and math classes—or at least as much as I did my humanities seminars. I was far from home in a big city, and I wanted more than anything to connect with people and make sense of a vast new place. My humanities classes—English and philosophy especially—helped me do just this. Taking them was like being initiated into a special club of really smart people who knew everything about everything. Being part of this club, or at least one of its wannabes, made me feel that I was participating in something big—what I said, the arguments I made, mattered. It was an amazing sensation, better, even, than the calm serenity of knowing what I’d do when I graduated.

Late in my sophomore year, I told my dad I was declaring a double major in English and philosophy. He made the kind of tight grimace usually reserved for taxes and plumbing repairs and muttered something about postponing retirement. But my pragmatism didn’t disappear when I switched out of premed. I started hunting down workstudy gigs that let me practice the writing and analytical skills I was getting in my English seminars, first taking a job writing press releases for the fine arts department, then becoming a tour guide at a local art museum, and then eventually finding an internship doing PR and sales for a summer music festival. These jobs didn’t pay much—I was always babysitting on the side—but, paired with the work I was doing in my major courses, they helped me plausibly imagine myself into many different careers: advertising, PR, publishing, museum education, arts administration. Before college, none of these pursuits were on my radar, but the people I was meeting who did these jobs seemed happy. They had autonomy and respect and intellectual engagement. And they too had studied things like English and philosophy. When I interviewed for work, I found that my major came across as serious rather than frivolous. It told prospective employers not only that I could write and communicate, but also that I was capable of puzzling through hard ideas. It told them that I possessed the kind of knowledge and abilities that matter to thoughtful people in creative fields.

In the end, my dad needn’t have worried. I found a job almost as soon as I graduated, helping with arts education at the same small museum where I’d been a tour guide. I stayed there while I earned a masters degree, and then worked in non-profits for nearly two years before returning to grad school for a Ph.D. (probably the least pragmatic decision I’ve ever made). I enjoyed those years, and in truth, I think I could have stayed in any one of those careers and been happy. I love being an English professor, but this job, just like my college major, is a choice. Studying English prepared me for where I am now, but it also prepared me for many other meaningful kinds of work.

 

I don’t mean to minimize English majors’ very valid concerns about employment. In lots of ways, I was lucky. And of course, no future is a sure thing. Circumstances that can’t be predicted close off some roads and open up new ones. Interests change. But for all these reasons, for someone who likes to read and write and think, I believe that English, in its own strange way, is one of the most pragmatic majors out there. It’s not an end in itself—you won’t graduate and “do” English. But that’s exactly why it’s so great. It changes with you. You can make it and remake it into what you want it to be. It translates itself into opportunities you can’t yet name.

Maybe you’ve always known you were going to be an English major. Maybe, to your own surprise, you find yourself considering it. Either way, welcome. It’s a worthy destiny. It’s a fine choice.

Starting Convos - Dr. Dean Defino

Conversations start when two or more people share something in common.  It may be something very basic, like standing in the same place at the same time (“Do you know if the bus is running on time?”; “I think that penguin just winked at us”), or something more profound, like a shared passion.  If you have come to this blog, it is most likely because you share a passion for books, for stories, for words, and the ways they work on our senses and our imaginations.  Here you will find others who share that passion.  And so a conversation will begin.

What will we talk about?  The things we love.  Sometimes we will simply want to share our passions by recommending the things we love to each other.  Sometimes we will feel compelled to explain; other times, we will be forced to admit that we don’t fully understand.  That’s good.  This isn’t a thesis or a project, but a place to meet and be enthusiastic.  Not necessarily as students or teachers or scholars or critics, but as amateurs, a word that originally meant “lovers.”

We’ve all had that experience of reading a book or poem, watching a movie or a play, and suddenly falling head-over-heels in love with it.  Not the sort of love we feel for concepts, ideals, or community, but the messy, irrational, trip-over-ourselves-to-tell-others kind of love.  That’s what we want to celebrate here.  Will we try to convince each other that we should all love these things too?  Of course.  That’s what we do when we are passionate.  That’s what connects us.  That’s what starts conversations.

So to all lovers of stories, of words, of the music and noise, beauty and horror, virtue and vice of reading—whatever it is we love to read: I say to you, welcome to the conversation.

~Dean Defino