Thursday, October 31, 2013

Cannibalism & Identity in George Percy's A Trewe Relacyon

“Certainly the deepest horror, as far as I'm concerned, is what happens to your body at your own hands and others.” —Wes Craven

It's Halloween and I'm thinking of bones, of my own guts, of the third-trimester alien growing inside of me, and of my husband who wants to eat the placenta, an act that to me seems taboo, dangerously close to cannibalism. Maybe I'm just cautious, an overly sensitive vegan, but I'm not sure I can trust a man with a taste for human flesh, even if the placenta will soon be, technically, a “spare part”. This near-breach of barriers has called into question our unity, not only as a species but as a married couple. Our social contract is on the line, and it gives me little comfort to know that ours is not the first relationship to be rattled by cannibalism. One could even claim, historically speaking, that cannibalism and marriage are part of the American Experience, traceable back to the first English colony at Jamestown.

Recent archeological findings at Jamestown have verified claims of cannibalism during the Starving Time, a period of brutal famine from 1609-1610, when an estimated seventy-percent of Jamestown's population perished. Excavated skulls show marks from cutlery. Bones show butcher cuts.

These findings shouldn't be a shock considering the many testimonies of colonists, including famously morbid sections of Captain John Smith's account, as well as the lesser-known, but image-rich writings of Governor George Percy who, unlike Smith, was actually present, living and famishing in the colony during the Starving Time. Because their topics overlap, it is especially fascinating to examine the differences between the writing of Captain John Smith and Governor George Percy. In the excerpts below, we can see how Smith, in his General History of Virginia, New England, and the Summer Isles (published in 1624), approaches the Starving Time as novelty, not as a personal tragedy. Where Percy's writings on the time are loaded with details of misery, Smith's account takes on a tone that is part recipe and part joke. He writes of the colonists killing a native:

"[After the colonists buried the native] they took him up again and eat him, and so did divers one another boiled and stewed with roots and herbs: And one amongst the rest did kill his wife, powdered her, and had eaten part of her before it was known, for which he was executed, as he well deserved; now whether she was better roasted, boiled or [barbequed], I know not, but of such a dish as powdered wife I never heard of."

Smith's accounts are third-person, and he broaches the topic of cannibalism with a more socially acceptable incident (for the time), the English eating the “other”. When he delves into a more taboo tale where a man kills and eats his own wife, Smith attempts to offset the horror with humor, possibly because the incident seems to baffle him to amusement, and possibly because he is aware that this type of cannibalism is somehow a more grave departure from the social code of acceptability, even in times of great hardship.

Unfortunately, with the exception of a few funny spellings, George Percy's documentation of the Starving Time is completely humorless. Few laughs can be found in his personal account, A Trewe Relacyon, the confessional memoir about his New World experience which, although written in 1623, wasn't published in its entirety until 1922.

Early in Relacyon, Percy prepares the reader for horror, appealing to the reader's most visceral sensibilities:

"Now all of us att James Towne beginneinge to feele the sharpe pricke of hunger w[hi]ch noe man trewly descrybe butt he w[hi]ch hathe Tasted the bitternesse thereof. A worlde of miseries ensewed as the Sequell will expresse unto yow, in so mutche thatt some to satisfye their hunger have Robbed the store for the w[hi]ch I Caused them to be executed."

Although Percy is the highest ranking official in Jamestown, he makes certain to include himself in the tale of suffering, as though setting up a buffer which he will later need. Here, Percy's writing demonstrates his particular attention to the collective, beginning the tale with “all of us att James Towne.” He uses pronouns to his advantage, the collective “we” and the singular “I.” He distinguishes himself as as governor and judge, yet relies on the collective “we” to cushion his involvement in the acts of cannibalism which are to follow. He goes on to describe the general menu decline of the colony:

"Then haveinge fedd upour horses and other beastes as longe as they Lasted, we weare gladd to make shifte w[i]th vermin as doggs Catts Ratts and myce all was fishe thatt Came to Nett to satisfye Crewell hunger, as to eate Bootes shoes or any other leather some Colde come by and those beinge Spente and devoured some weare inforced to searche the woodes and to feede upon Serpentts and snakes [...]"

The list goes from bad to worse. Percy continues to communicate the sense that all is not well. The colonists have picked a poor location—they never planned on growing their own food, assuming instead that they would trade trinkets with the natives in exchange for nourishment. But Powhatan, the powerful chief of the region's tribal confederacy, is more interested in annihilation than in trade. As as result, many of the colonists, while foraging for food, are killed by the natives whose tribes surrounded the colony on three sides. Because it is dangerous to leave the protected walls of the fort, the colonists turn inward in their search for nourishment. Percy relates the worsening conditions which finally lead to cannibalism:

"And now famin beginneinge to Looke gastely and pale in every face, thatt notheinge was Spared to mainteyne Lyfe and to doe those things w[hi]ch seame incredible, as to digge upp deade corpes outt of graves and to eate them."

Eating dead people seems particularly gross, but even so, consuming the already-dead seems more kind than killing people for food, which is the next step in Jamestown's downward progression of hunger. In arguably the most grisly section of Relacyon, infanticide combines with matrimonial cannibalism*. In a manner far more startling than Smith's, Percy sets the scene:

"And amongste the reste this was moste lamentable. Thatt one of our Colline murdered his wyfe Ripped the Childe outt of her woambe and threwe itt into the River and after Chopped the Mother in pieces and sallted her for his foode, The same not beinge discovered before he had eaten p[ar]te thereof. For the w[hi]ch Crewell and unhumane factt I adjudged him to be executed the acknowledgm[en]t of the dede beinge inforced from him by torture haveinge hunge by the Thumbes w[i]th weightes att his feete a quarter of an howere before he wolde Confesse the same."

Unlike Smith's, in Percy's version, there are no jokes about barbeque. This is one of rare moments in straight-forward Relacyon where Percy uses emotional language; it's one of three instances of the word lamentable.

With all of the New World gore Percy carries out, the slaughter of natives, the execution of his own colonists, why, a decade and a half later, when Percy writes A Trewe Relacyon, does he still seem so rattled by the cannibalism at Jamestown? After all, from his accounts, there was only one murder—the rest of the cannibalized residents are all dead before they were exhumed for dinner.

Does the Starving Time, to Percy, represent a departure from morality? It's doubtful. Percy and the colonists are not missionaries or otherwise motivated by morality or religion; they are gold-seekers, and they operate under a set of rules that are more fitting for the military, where desertion or mutiny threaten the survival of the group. A more plausible explanation for Percy's lingering horror might have more to do with social class than morality. Half the colonists are gentlemen, not used to hardship or working. They certainly aren't used to eating rats, horses, cats, or humans. The debasement of groveling for food alongside commoners is an unwelcome lowering of class, a crossing of lines that should not be crossed. The loss of distinct social class hints at a blurring of identity, but the problem seems more complex than that, or at least more visceral. It seems the real terror comes from the inability to distinguish one body from another, a human carcass from an animal's, a baby from offal, a pregnant wife from salt pork.

Perhaps it is the recognition of himself as a cannibal that startles Percy so deeply. Maybe this is why he uses the collective voice when he talks of cannibalism. He always says “we”, never implicating himself alone in these actions, though other depravities which are arguably just as horrific are admitted to without hesitation. He orders the execution of men, but this is commonplace for others of his social and political standing. There is acceptable precedent for his actions as a governor, but not as a hungry, cannibalizing human. It seems that being a cannibal is not something Percy is comfortable with.

When identity is debased to the bare bones of ego, when it degrades into the most basic difference between I and not-I, the not-I becomes more personally defined, and even corporeally defined by the boundaries of one's own skin—not skin color, but actual skin, the largest and most protective organ of the human body, which is also the first barrier of the recognizable self. Our skin keeps us from looking like meat, keeps our faces from appearing as something other than wet skeletons. Skin made Narcissus gaze into the water. Skin makes human faces look human.** So when Percy looks in the mirror, he doesn't want to admit, “I am a cannibal.” Instead, he would rather surround himself with his fellows—his writing illustrates this desire. The distinction between I and we is important; it is the difference between collective dread and isolated horror.

Dread becomes horror when the liminal lines break, when the act of approaching abjection (eating rats and horses, dogs and cats, and placenta) crosses over into complete immersion in taboo (cannibalizing one's own species, friends, loved ones), and perhaps it is here, on the other side of defilement where we are the most uncomfortable, where we must call into question our own identities, both as individuals and as members of a social contract.

*This seemed relevant to the placenta debate, so last week, over dinner, I read this section aloud to my husband.

**Placenta has neither face nor skin, which is an argument for classifying the placenta as a viable piece of meat.

All George Percy quotes taken from A Trewe Relacyon, by George Percy (Mark Nicholls’s transcription)

Rachel G. White is a Creative Nonfiction MFA student at the University of Iowa. 

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Whitman: Before and After

As I listen to a recent episode of Studio 360, an episode discussing Walt Whitman’s lasting legacy on America, a reverie of Washington, DC overcomes me. Nearly everyday for eight years I passed the Dupont Circle Metro station where a broad cylindrical granite wall—nearly 50 feet across—bears an engraving from Whitman’s poem, “The Wound-Dresser.” The sprawling quote doesn’t call attention to itself so much as it subtly creeps into the periphery of the passerby until the moment comes when she cannot help but pause in reflection:
Thus in silence of dreams’ projections,
Returning, resuming, I thread my way through the hospitals,
The hurt and wounded, I pacify with soothing hand,
I sit by the restless all the dark night, some are so young,
Some suffer so much I recall the experience, sweet and sad
The excerpt is alive with death and life, pain and tenderness. I feel Whitman’s empathy; I feel the quick of his spirit pierced. But I want to know more, not through his poetry—those sprawling lines of depth and movement—but through his prose so I might better understand the man beneath the poem. I want him to tell me the sureness of his footing in America before and after experiencing the travails of being witness to all the blood and death of the Civil War. I want to know where he ended up after he first sung his body, electrifying the poetics of America, and the world. I believe the answers rest somewhere in the two essays that bookmarked (and bookended) his life: the preface to the first edition of Leaves of Grass and his final essay, “A Backward Glance O’er Travel’d Roads.”
            Appearing first as a preface to November Boughs, a short collection of essays and poems in 1888, “A Backward Glance O’er Travel’d Roads” went through several revisions, four published under separate titles: “A Backward Glance on My Road (1884),” “How ‘Leaves of Grass’ was Made (1885),” “How I Made a Book (1886),” and “My Book and I (1887).” Each of these essays contains fundamental building blocks of thought, each essay containing a sentence, or entire paragraphs, almost identical to those found in the finished product. This was not a mere exercise in cutting and pasting for Whitman. These were his attempts at the essay. Workshopping his ideas through each published work, Whitman came closer and closer to precisely what he wanted to say and how he wanted to say it. Just as he had done with his poetry each year between the first and final editions of Leaves of Grass, he also did with his prose. Continuously looking backward at his work to tweak and adjust, lengthen or shorten, Whitman was fearless when allowing his evolving sensibilities to inform and revise what he had previously written to reflect what he presently felt. Some criticized this near three-decade specular process of revision. For Sculley Bradley and John A. Stevenson, however, this was not the case:
[Whitman’s] tendency to revert to the same subject has been condemned as indicating poverty of thought. On the contrary it is consistent with his creed of progressive evolution as the means to wisdom for the individual, and to good in the whole vast visa of life.
Before his death in 1892, Whitman gave explicit directions concerning the handling of his magnum opus. His final revision was to be published unchanged ad infinitum. Upholding the importance of his revisionary style and essaying techniques, Whitman wrote: “The subsequent adjusting interval which is so important to form’d and launch’d work, books especially, has passed; and waiting till fully after that, I have given my concluding words.” To follow the final lines of Leaves of Grass, Whitman insisted that his essay “A Backward Glance O’er Travel’d Roads” be the “concluding words” of his collection. (Note: His instructions also insisted that the preface of the 1855 edition be the preface to the final edition as well.)
But where did he begin all of those years before the twilight of his life approached, before the multiple strokes, before the war wearily aged him to a wilting grey? At time Leaves of Grass was first published, Whitman was 35 years old and wrote with the force of a steam engine. Strikingly different than the essay that came 30 years later, the preface to the 1855 edition bursts with pounding energy. It’s breathless and leaves the reader breathless: “From the eyesight proceeds another eyesight and from the hearing proceeds another hearing and from the voice proceeds another voice eternally curious of the harmony of things with man.” The words want to be read until the reader becomes faint, intoxicated in the throes of diction and syntax; however, it is not just the propulsion of energy that calls our attention, but also Whitman’s prophetic earnestness. He writes:
“. . . the young man who has composedly periled his life and lost it has done exceedingly well for himself, while the man who has not periled his life and retains it to old age in riches and ease has perhaps achieved nothing for himself worth mentioning . . “
After a life spent milling through words, walking amongst the wounded, and ailing from illness and age, can Whitman say for himself that he has done well? I believe so.
            The war changed him, as war tends to do with all of those who stand as its witness. The author writes in “A Backward Glance O’er Travel’d Roads”:
 “I went down to the war fields in Virginia (end of 1862), lived thenceforth in camp—saw great battles and the days and nights afterward—partook of all the fluctuations, gloom, despair, hopes again arous’d, courage evoked—death readily risk’d—the causes, too—along and filling those agonostic and lurid following years, 1863-’64-’65—the real parturition years (more than 1776-’83) of this henceforth homogeneous Union. Without those three of four years and the experiences they gave, “Leaves of Grass” would not now be existing.”
He was spurred by the war, both negatively and positively. As many historians have pointedly remarked, Whitman’s health was in steady decline soon after the end of 1865. The war took a part of his vitality, surely. But in the same light, war gave him another perspective on life and experience, a side that provided a reason for being, a reason to continue the pursuit of literary toil and revision. He had something to say and he needed the time to get it all out. He professed, “Defiant of ostensible literary and other conventions, I avowedly chant “the great pride of man in himself,” and permit it to be more or less a motif of nearly all my verse.” His words are calmer than those found in the preface of 1855. His voice more deliberate, more controlled.

Maybe it was the war that changed Whitman; maybe it was his response to aging. In any case, the effect was the same no matter the cause. The writer went inward, became reflexive and contemplative. As all writers, Whitman workshopped ideas and lines and sentences all of his writing life. His essays emblematized his vision of America; they are a treatise on his nation, and thus, himself.

Tell Me If This Bridge Will Hold: A Letter to a 19th C. Engineer, on a 17th C. Essayist, With a Question About a Bridge

To Isambard Kingdom Brunel:

Mr. Brunel, I've been wondering: Have you read Sir Thomas Browne? I ask because of the Clifton Suspension Bridge, the first bridge you designed, the one you didn't live to see finished. I hate to be the one to tell you, but technically, it still isn't done. The bridge is plain-faced stone. In your plans, you drew hieroglyphics on its pillars...

...which made me think of Browne. In 1646, he published Pseudodoxia Epidemica, an encyclopedic volume of essays interrogating common superstitions, or "vulgar errors." In Book V, Chapter XX, "Of the Heiroglyphicall Pictures of the AEgyptians" he wrote:
Certainly, of all men that suffered the confusion of Babel, the AEgyptians found the best evasion; for, though words were confounded, they invented a language of things, and spake unto each other by common notions in Nature. Whereby they discoursed in silence, and were intuitively understood from the theory of their Expresses.
See, after Franceso Petrarch found Cicero's letters in the 14th C., more or less kicking off the Renaissance, the renewed interest in the Classics also sparked a revival of the Greek's and Roman's fascination with Egyptian symbology. Do you remember the 1799 discovery of the Rossetta Stone, Mr. Brunel? No, how could you, you were born in 1806. Anyways - one of Napoleon's soldiers found it, and then it took another twenty years before the transliteration of the Egyptian script was worked out. For the four hundred years in between, and especially in Browne's century, it was thought that hieroglyphics were a language specially reserved for formal, sacred writing in Ancient Egypt, that only priests could read them, and that no one could speak them. They were understood to be a silent language of interpretation, used solely to expound the mystical meaning of Creation.

"Thus ther are two bookes from whence I collect my Divinity" Browne wrote in Religio Medici in 1642. "Besides that written one of God, another of his servant Nature, that universall and publick Manuscript, that lies expans'd unto the eyes of all." "What reason may not goe to Schoole to the wisdome of Bees, [Ants],and Spiders?" he asked. Because nature itself was considered a form of symbolic writing, penned by God, each living thing was regarded as an expression of a divine idea, a symbol to be interpreted. Brown called these symbols, mostly animals, "common Hieroglyphics," the living things the Egyptian's painted and carved counterparts supposedly represented. "Surely [the AEgyptians] knew better how to joyne and reade these mysticall letters than wee Christians, who cast a more carelesse eye on these common Hieroglyphics," he wrote. But that was the problem, the "error" Browne called to attention: if hieroglyphics were a representational language, then even if they were the "best evasion," to written language's inadequacy, they still weren't a huge step up as a means of reading - and rewriting - the natural world.

Browne in Pseudodoxia again: "This may conceive to have been the primitive way of writing; and this indeed might Adam well have spoken, who understanding the nature of things, had the advantage of natural expressions." Because they employ images of the natural world in lieu of letters or characters, hieroglyphs could have been the original Adamic language, the perfect means by which God and the first of mankind chattered over the garden wall in Eden. But, Browne said, surely this wasn't so. Hieroglyphs were closer than words, sure, to the creatures they represented, but they still were not the things themselves. Like moral fables told about animals - those natural symbols, those common hieroglyphics - spoken in man-invented tongues, Egyptian hieroglyphics were just another conventional language; the disconnect from the divine syllabary residing, according to Browne, in nature was still too great for his satisfaction. He wanted a code to a natural language, a way to actually read the world around him.

So, as far as classic English essays go, Sir Thomas Browne's Hydriotaphia, Urn Burial, his 1658 "Discourse on the Sepulchral Urns Lately Found in Norfolk," is about as famous and as beautiful as they get. But did you know it was the first part of a set of two? That essay's diptych companion was The Garden of Cyrus (or "The Quincunciall Lozenge, or Network Plantations of the Ancients, naturally, artificially, mystically considered"). The latter essay was Browne's vision of art, nature, and God's interconnection therein via symbols: hieroglyphics, in part, but also this thing called the quincunx and, weirdly, the number five. In Hydriotaphia, Browne meditated langorously on death and burial ritual, marveling at the wonder of God's design; in The Garden, he was out to prove that design's intelligence. In Religio Medici he had defined nature as "that straight and regular line, that settled and constant course the Wisdome of God that ordained." How then, he asked in The Garden, could man read that wise text, and by extension, how could man rewrite it without adulterating its message? Since hieroglyphics were an inadequate option, Browne turned from purely imagistic symbolism to "mystical Mathematicks."

The quincunx is that five-pointed cross we see on gaming dice, and it was, according to Browne, the "Emphaticall decussation," the "fundamental figure." This is probably why The Garden isn't too widely read. Never mind its substantial length, Browne's sole aim in writing The Garden was to prove that the number five, in its quincuncial disposition (those dots), was the magical figure by which God had ordered nature. If it sounds like number-based conspiracy-theory-type raving, well, that's because it kind of is. And it's a mess! The state of Browne's handwriting in early drafts suggest he wrote the manuscript with manic speed. His pen's marks swoop and blur as though his imagination conjured evidence faster than he could write it down. Even cleaned up, the essay is a vertiginous parade of imagery and signification, links in a chain of baffling logic. After describing rows of trees ("garden," right?) growing in the quincunx's orderly shape, in sets of five, he digresses to "the Old Theme...of crosses and crucifixions," after which he considers that the Roman numeral V (quinque), "being doubled at the angle " (i.e. stacked on top of itself), would make the Roman numeral X (decem), which is a crossing (a "decussation") like the Greek letter chi (X). From there, he recalls the "Christian singularity" he sees in "the Hebrew Tenupha, or ceremony of their Oblation," where priests were - wait for it! - "anointed decussatively" in the form of an X.

Basically, this is not an essay you can try to read on any terms other than those it creates for itself. There's not point in waiting for Browne to convince you of his argument; he's too busy convincing himself of each connection he draws. It's an exhausting performance of obsession and it just keeps going. The links get weirder and Browne's writing is wild, but no mistake - The Garden is a carefully landscaped essay. In its first chapter (I did say it was long, didn't I?), Browne explains that the term "quincunx" applies "not only to the number of trees, but [to] the figure declaring that number," emphasizing his use of the five pointed cross as both a visual and arithmetical symbol. He performs this duality in the essay's very form, pausing midway, in the thirty-first of the essay's sixty-one paragraphs, so that thirty paragraphs lie on either side of his remark that the number five "cannot escape our observations in no small number of plants." (Then he starts counting the ways fives show up in the wild, as in a rose's five leaves, for instance.)

I suppose The Garden of Cyrus was also midpoint, of a sort. Even while he wanted to debunk romantic theories about Egyptian hieroglyphics and offer an alternative, Browne was still tethered to Renaissance interpretations - hieroglyphs as a silent language, nature as a book - in a major way. However, specious as his reasoning gets in The Garden, he was operating towards the Age of Reason in the sense that he approached his subject "affording delightful Truths, confirmable by sense and ocular Observation.". He insisted on empiricism, is what I'm saying, Mr. Brunel, and a standard of thought supported by evidence, by trial. (Incidentally, did you know that the word "essay," etymologically, means something close to that - a "trial", or an "experiment?")

You don't have a clue what I'm going on about, do you, Mr. Brunel? I mean, maybe  you did read Browne, maybe he was your favorite writer even. Maybe, in secret, you were a total Browne fanboy, and maybe that's why, in your design, you drew Egyptian hieroglyphics in the center of the Clifton Suspension Bridge. I'd like to think that, I really would. The correlation would be so convenient, because bridges are about connection and so is language, and...and...But if there's anything The Garden of Cyrus illustrates, it's that any abundance of correlations won't necessarily reveal causation, except perhaps in our own imagination.

That's the risk of going into an essay - or an experiment - looking to prove rather than discover. It's the old "seek and ye shall find" trap. If our hypothesis is bunk, our observations merely accumulate, rather than inform. What symbols we unearth, we add up by wishful arithmetic, hoping that the magnitude of their similarities will hold enough weight to force a connection. If that's what Browne did in The Garden of Cyrus, well, I guess I'm sympathetic to his fault. For example, the hieroglyphs you wanted for your bridge were probably purely decorative, in keeping, perhaps, with the fashion generated by the Rosetta Stone's transliteration in the previous decade. There's nothing wrong with that, if that was where your head was at, but can you blame me for hoping for a grander significance?

You know, Isambard - can I call you Isambard? - it's not like you were obliged to record your thoughts for posterity, but this whole question of whether or not you'd ever read Sir Thomas Browne could have been cleared up really quickly if you'd just kept better diaries. You wrote in a journal for two years, filled thirty-five pages (scantly), and then you stopped. That doesn't leave me with a whole lot to consult, Isambard, but your first entry is a poignant one. On October 11th, 1827, you wrote:
At last I have begun this my private journal even now altho' at the second line I can hardly perswade [sic] myself that it is really private but am puzzling myself for proper words thus destroying the very object I have in view viz to record my feeling habits faults wishes hopes and every thing belonging to the present moment.
Preach! I get that, Isambard. I share your frustration. So did Browne. Reading the world is hard enough. Reading one's inner world - those feelings, habits, fault, wishes, hopes, and the present moment's every little thing - is harder still. But to write either, to convey what it is we see and feel, is to articulate experience via perpetually inadequate symbols. It's as though, to bridge the gap between sensation and observation, we're stuck with a linguistic chest of tools that are beautiful, sure, but rarely as hard or heavy or sharp as we'd like them to be. It hampers communication, for sure (even with our selves as in your diary). When you get down to it, I think that's why Browne wrote The Garden of Cyrus. Deciphering a more perfect communicative code might have allowed him to read the God-made book of the world. More pointedly, it would have also given him a way to talk to its author.

When I was home in England last New Year's I drove to Bristol. Clifton isn't the working class neighborhood it was when my grandmother moved there in the 1950s, but some things haven't changed. I walked my dog around the park in Clifton Down where parents still play with their kids. They slid one by one down the groove in the park's rock-faced hill, worn smooth and polished by over a hundred years of parents and children doing just the same. And there was your bridge, spanning Avon Gorge between Clifton and Leigh Woods, 337 feet above the River Avon. There it was, all sweeping cables and stately pillars, and no, it's not all it could have been. They opened it 1864, when you were five years dead and buried, and they never added those hieroglyphs you wanted. But still, it gets the job done. It gets us where we need to go.


P.S. Saw you at the London Olympics in 2012. Great hat!

All quotations attributed to Browne come from Sir Thomas Browne: The Major Works, ed. C.A. Partides (New York, 1977).

"The Personal Journal of I. K. Brunel" was transcribed and annotated by R. Agnus Buchannan and can be found online here.

Gemma de Choisy missed a connecting flight and is currently stranded in the Atlanta Airport. Sir Thomas Browne is keeping her company.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Aaron Alford: Fussing Over Style

Don’t go looking for wisdom here—especially not wisdom that is not earned. At Arcadia Magazine, we’re not seeking essays that deliver epiphanies, advice, or words to live by. No brilliant thoughts on everyday household objects or clever insights into the quotidian. Do not try to reveal watertight truths for the betterment of all Humanity. (Note: We probably won’t be interested in your essay if you capitalize words like Humanity.) We receive a lot of these types of essays, ones whose titles usually begin with the dreadful “On…”

“On Friendship.”

“On the Paper Cut I Got Yesterday.”

“On Toilet Paper.”

On the head of my firstborn, I swear to eat a bag of nails if we ever publish one of those essays.

We are not too terribly interested in writers working within the Montaigne vein (or vain, if you will), mostly because so few writers do it well. We respect tradition, and we recognize Montaigne as the great-grandpappy of everything we do, yes, okay, we get it—but these days, there is too much piddly writing committed in that man's name. Incoherent ramblings. Unjustified meandering. Too many writers use the "Essay As Representation Of The Mind At Work" thing as an excuse to string together as many loose associations and insights as it takes to convince themselves (but rarely their readers) that they are wonderful writers.

Several years ago, my graduate program was lucky enough to be visited by a big-time essayist, a major name in our genre. He was a wonderful man, just as everyone said he would be. He graciously stood before an auditorium packed with sleepy undergraduates and read a couple of essays. As the reading went on, the undergrads grew sleepier. I also wasn’t turned on by what I heard that night, but this guy was a big-name writer, an important figure, someone I felt pressured to admire. So when he finished reading, I headed for the back of the auditorium, elbowed my way through the crowd of students stuffing their pockets with free cookies, and bought his book of selected essays. He signed it for me, and I carried it home with plans to read it and thereby be woken up to all that is wonderful and good about personal essays—a second chance to get whatever it was I missed during his reading.

I read the introduction, just four pages, and then I read those four pages again. And that was enough for me. I was done. Five years have passed since that night, and I still can't find it in myself to read another word of that writer’s large, influential body of work. I’m still angry at one particular paragraph from his introduction, the one where he comments on his prose style. It helped me realize why a lot of very traditional personal essayists working these days (a lot of whom seem to be influenced by this writer) put me to sleep. The writer confesses that style just ain’t important to him, and as far as I can tell, he suggests that style shouldn’t be very important to any writer—it's just not something we should fuss with. He laughs at Flaubert’s notion of le mot juste. Unlike Babel, he never tries to unleash a period with the force of a bullet. We should simply end one sentence and start the next one immediately, right now, go, go. That's what works for him. He says that taking himself or the art of prose too seriously goes against the grain of his being.

Listen. Arcadia only wants to publish essays from writers who take the art of prose seriously. We do not have to take ourselves too seriously in this life—we sure as hell don’t—but we should all be serious about our sentences. We're interested in essays whose success depends on precise language, essays that feel deliberate and chock-full of purpose. Clear eyes, full hearts . . . all of that. We want essays that grip us and refuse to let go. Everything should be tight, hardly any slack (which is kind of the definition of grip, right?).

None of us nails le mot juste all the livelong day. Not all of our periods land with .45-caliber force. We break ourselves over the wheel of the sentence, and we fail all the time, all of us. But we should still try. Style is something to fuss with. Try to make your punctuation draw blood, or else why are you even doing this?

Send us something that you just had to write, something from inside your bones. No intellectual exercises and no armchair philosophizing. Don’t go looking for wisdom—just go looking. And please, do it with style.

Aaron Alford is the nonfiction editor of Arcadia Magazine. His essays have appeared in or are forthcoming from Bellingham Review, Memoir, River Teeth, Hobart, The Los Angeles Review, Sonora Review, and elsewhere. He is a doctoral candidate in the creative writing program at Texas Tech University, where he teaches literature and creative writing.

The American Essay is Moby-Dick

At first you are put off by the style. It reads like journalism. It seems spurious. You feel Melville is trying to put something over you. It won't do.
-  D.H. Lawrence

I wonder why Moby-Dick isn’t the cornerstone of more conversations about the essay in American literature.  To some extent we’re always talking about nonfiction when we discuss Moby-Dick, but it is always that kind of nonfiction that we have to trudge through, the boring stuff we skipped in high school to get to the wildest parts about the crazy captain and the homoerotic processing of blubber and that one part where that one guy wears the foreskin of a whale like vestments (Chapter 95: The Cassock, if you’re into that kind of thing).

Sure, you’ll find the occasional blogger raving about Chapter 32: Cetology (often described as a zoological treatise--the first of the book’s chapters to flummox high school freshman), but that’s still in the vein of “Look what I learned about whales!” or “Aren’t digressions sooo experimental in fiction!” But even that chapter reeks of essay; it has none of the authoritative tone of a scientific textbook, but has all the intellectual struggle of the essay.  Consider its last sentences:

For small erections may be finished by their first architects; grand ones, true ones ever leave the copestone to posterity.  God keep me from ever completing anything. This whole book is but a draught – nay, but the draught of a draught.

Even the recent and otherwise wonderful book Bending Genre, edited by Margot Jefferson and Nicole Walker, dismisses Moby-Dick in the introduction as an example of formal originality in the novel without ever considering that the book might do exactly the kind of “creative nonfiction” boundary pushing that Bending Genre works to highlight. 

Maybe it’s too strong to say that any part of scholarship on American literature dismisses Moby-Dick (after all, an ungodly amount of tenure has been piled upon that white whale’s hump).  And I’m certainly not suggesting any sort of territorial war over the genre of the book – it belongs to all of us.  But I think those of us interested in writing essays – and interested in studying the tradition of American essays – might learn a thing or two from devoting a bit more of our time to this leviathan.

Take, for instance, the rough waters at the outset of Herman Melville’s literary career.  See how they primed him to embrace the essay like a shard of shipwreck on the open sea.

Typee, Melville’s first book was published with the original title: Narrative of a Four Months’ Residence among the Natives of a Valley of the Marquesas Islands; or, A Peep at Polynesian Life.  By all accounts the book was billed as a straight forward travel narrative about Melville’s 1842 adventure in which he lived among cannibals on the island Nukuhiva after abandoning a whaling ship in the Pacific Ocean.  But even though the book became wildly successful (the most popular of his lifetime, suggesting he was always perceived as a writer of “nonfiction” (though that term didn’t yet exist) ), Typee was plagued with questions of veracity, concerns about the kind of fact smudging or inventing that these days leads to that dreaded confrontation: The Oprah Inquisition. 

This is a review of the Typee from 1846 in The Morning Courier & New York Enquirer: 

We have not the slightest confidence in any of the details…This would be a matter to be excused, if the book were not put forth as a simple record of actual experience. It professes to give nothing but what the author actually saw and heard.  It must therefore be judged, not as a romance or a poem, but a book of travel, as a statement of facts; and in this light it has, in our judgment, no merit whatsoever…

Sure enough, by the 1940s many scholars proved that, in Typee, Melville borrowed extensively from the writings of his contemporary explorers and missionaries.  They also showed that much of the rest of the book occurs outside the realm of verifiability (though it should be noted that Toby, a real-life character from Typee, came out of the woodwork to back Melville up on some of the saucier parts of the yarn (cannibals!)). 

However, as Ruth Blair points out in her 1996 introduction to Typee, by the time the 1940s fact-checkers rolled around, the novel had come of age as real art and Melville had been enshrined in the cannon of novelists and so, his fictionalizing caused very little distress.

But immediately after it’s publication, Melville refused to let the big bad Oprahs of his day shame him into apologizing for how he wrote Typee.  Carolyn Porter sums up the controversy this way:

…the evidence adduced for Melville’s conscious duplicity in the matter is far from compelling, and points just as persuasively, if not more so, to a different claim: Melville kept insisting that he had told the truth because he really believed he had.  For one thing, his letters at the time reveal a man alternately befuddled and outraged by people who insist on not believing him.  The more his word is questioned, the more he ardently seeks to defend it. 

Porter ultimately concludes Melville achieves a kind of truth in Typee that is not one based on “scrupulous attention to date or orthography” but one predicated on upending the traditional travel narrative format of preserving the distance between civilization and savagery (basically he frightened fancy pants Americans by showing them they weren’t so different from savages).  Ruth Blair tellingly aligns this theme with that of Montaigne in his classic essay Of Cannibals.  

Perhaps, even at the tender age of 27, Melville already had his nose all up in some essays.     

The Typee controversy is important because it sets in motion Melville’s career long wiggling around inside different forms and genres in an attempt to find a way to communicate his truths.  Unfortunately all that wiggling ends with him, at the end of his career, writing some god-awful poetry (sorry, but try to stay awake while reading Clarel).  Porter explains Melville’s move toward the epic poem, “Eventually, fictional discourse by itself would prove as unreliable a source of authority as nonfictional discourse had, operating as it did in accord with codes of consistency and verisimilitude that became, to Melville, manifestly false”. 

But let’s not run Porter’s reasoning all the way to the god-awful epic poetry, let’s pause at 1851, let’s pause at Moby-Dick.  Here, in 1851, we have a Melville who has written only one novel (the critical and commercial failure Mardi) and three relatively successful travel narratives (what many today hedgingly call “autobiographical novels”).  Melville is wiggling, struggling to find a form that suits him and his truths.  

Ned Stuckey-French in The American Essay in the American Century discusses a short story of Melville’s as part of an argument about American storytellers moving away from the intimacy of the hearth.  But in this discussion Ned, however inadvertently, nails exactly the rock and the hard place that I think propels the seemingly unruly (read: essayistic) form of Moby-Dick.  He says of Melville’s story, “His narrator turns to the past (as represented by the essays of Montaigne), and his wife turns to the magazines of the time; Melville seems to have felt caught between the two”.   

In this short story “I and my Chimney”, Melville’s narrator basically sits in front of his fireplace for seven years reading Montaigne and eating cheese and hating his wife’s “Ladies’ Magazines” for their fashion and sensationalism.  

If you approach Moby-Dick with that scene in mind, this struggle between the pure experience of Montaigne and the sensationalism of magazines, it  makes a lot more sense when you find out, as Betsy Hilbert writes, that Moby-Dick “…assaults our concept of genre; it confuses our easy categories. Melville's whale book is a massive conglomerate of fable and textbook, epic, allegory, zoo-logic treatise, philosophic exploration, essay, romance, and guidebook.”

At the very least, there is a bit of essay mixed in with all the rest.  At most, the entirety of the project is an essay, as Hilbert later concludes, “…the book is an exercise in exploring the ways truths can be told.”

DH Lawrence certainly thought the fiction of Moby-Dick took a back seat to some other mode that dominates the text:

And Melville really is a bit sententious: aware of himself, self-conscious, putting something over even himself. But then it's not easy to get into the swing of a piece of deep mysticism when you just set out with a story. 

For DH the story is only the starting point for a sententious and self-conscious speaker.  This is the kind of speaker we find in essays.  Sure, the speaker of Moby-Dick isn’t called Herman, but neither was the speaker of Typee, a book Melville battled so hard to defend as truth. 

I know we’ve not yet really even cracked open Moby-Dick to look closely at its techniques, to study them as essay, to observe the loose and lusty sallies of Melville’s mind.  But I’m hoping that’s what you’ll do.  I’m hoping you’ll see that, at the very least, the waters were boiling at the right temperature for the cooking of essay when Melville was at work on Moby-Dick in 1850.  I’m hoping you’ll start small, read Chapter 105: Does the Whale’s Magnitude Diminish?—Will He Perish?  Or, better yet, assign it in your essay classes, your nonfiction classes, your rhetoric classes.  And then Chapter 86: The Tail.  Even the book’s preface, Extracts (Supplied by a Sub-Sub-Librarian).

These and so many other chapters can be pulled entire from the book and studied as essays.  Then, one day, try to tackle the whole leviathan.  The history of the American essay is, of course, Emerson and Thoreau, but more thrillingly it is Moby-Dick.

Call Me Ishmael, or How to Make Double-Talk Speak by Carolyn Porter is (among other places) in the unfortunately titled The American Novel: New Essays on Moby-Dick ed. by Richard Brodhead


Joshua Wheeler has an unnecessarily large tattoo of Captain Ahab. 

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Patient Zero: A Journal of the Plague Year as the Beginning of the Modern Zombie

[Jim, Mike and Dawn are at a rest-stop in New Jersey. Jim and Mike have been close friends for years. Mike and Dawn have been dating for weeks, but they’ve both been wondering whether their relationship has run its course. The three of them are on their way home from a well-attended zombie run. Their conversation about the run has come to an end, but Jim is in no hurry to keep driving.]

     Jim: It’s a little weird, though, isn’t it?

     Mike: What’s that?

     Jim: The way the whole zombie phenomenon sprung up. It’s strange to think that this all started with one cult director.

     Dawn: George Romero?

     Jim: Yeah. Do you think he predicted all this?

     Dawn: He didn’t even get paid for Night of the Living Dead.

     Jim: Exactly, and look at what it spawned.

     Mike: He’s great, but he didn’t really “start” anything. I mean, his zombies couldn’t even run.

     Jim: Sure, other people have changed his zombies a bit, but he laid the framework for zombies themselves.

     Mike: He was an important part of how zombies have gotten to where they are, definitely, but not the beginning.

     Dawn: He’s right. HP Lovecraft was writing about zombies in the ‘20s.

     Mike: I’m thinking earlier. Daniel Defoe wrote the first zombie novel in 1722.

     Dawn: Are you talking about A Journal of the Plague Year again?

     Mike: Yes I’m talking about it again, because it’s relevant.

     Jim: What’s A Journal of the Plague Year?

     Dawn: It’s this book Mike talks about all the time. Apparently a plague struck London in 1665 and Daniel Defoe kept a detailed account of it. At Morgan’s party last month, Mike spent an hour telling us how it was the beginning of New Journalism.

     Mike: And now I’m saying it’s the beginning of modern zombie literature. It’s all things to all people.

     Jim: Oh, come on. If you want to find the beginning of zombies, it seems like you could go further than the 1700s. Didn’t zombies come to North America from Haiti?

     Mike: Sort of. You’re talking about voodoo zombies, right? What you see in this sort of mysticism is that an individual, living or dead, can have their body and will be overtaken by a stronger mystical force. There’s a significant sense of complete slavery at play in these stories, and with it a distinct master-slave hierarchy. So when we come across these stories we can fear the masters because of their power, or we can fear losing all of ourselves and becoming slaves.

     Jim: So?

     Mike: So nowadays we fear zombies for almost the opposite reasons. Look, Night of the Living Dead, The Walking Dead, World War Z, 28 Days Later – all of these pieces have the power to frighten us because of a distinct lack of control. We fear that we’ll become mindless freaks gnawing at our friends’ skulls. We can’t control ourselves, the government can’t control the situation, science and God have both failed us.

      Jim: But they rise from the dead. That’s what makes them zombies.

     Mike: That’s what makes them technically zombies, sure. But doesn’t the consequence matter as much as the action? Was Lazarus a zombie?

     Jim: Lazarus didn’t eat people.

     Mike: West African and Haitian zombies didn’t necessarily eat people, either.

     Dawn: And Lazarus was just one guy. What about stories of zombies rising en masse? Those are all over ancient literature.

     Mike: Yes, they are, but if you look at the Bible, or Gilgamesh, or the Quran, or even the more mainstream Voodoo, what you see is God, or a God-figure, commanding the dead to rise to fight in a holy war or to be led somewhere, or to terrify the enemies of God, or for some practicable reason. So you have the sense of a goal, and you also have an intimate relationship between the zombies and their creator. Romero severed this connection, as Defoe had already done three centuries earlier.

     Dawn: Wasn’t that during the Dark Ages, when people just attributed everything to God?

     Mike: It wasn’t in the Dark Ages, that’s not strictly true of the Dark Ages, and also no.

[Mike produces a copy of A Journal of the Plague Year from his pocket]

     Dawn: Did you bring that with you on the run?

     Mike: How else would I know what to expect if I was transported to 1665 London?

     Dawn: I’ve got some follow up questions to that…

     Mike: I’ll grant you that some people in the book attribute the zombies to God, mostly priests and the sort. And the narrator does refer to himself as being spared by God. But the narrator also attributes his survival to following his doctor’s advice

     Jim: They must have blamed something, and they’re more likely to blame God than science.

     Dawn: And are you kidnapped in this time travel fantasy?

     Mike: If that were true, then modern zombie literature would blame science for zombies. Instead, modern zombie literature, starting here, has characters that are a bit too busy or frazzled to pass blame. We see this throughout the book. Just fifteen pages in, he sees people who “heard voices that never spake, and saw sights that never appeared; but the imagination of the people was really turned wayward and possessed.” Basically, even in the beginning, the people were in no state to find a cause for the plague. By page seventy-nine we have parishioners fighting over whether to even ask for God’s help. By page 120, Defoe is frustrated by how “insensibly” the plague is spread. But all of this is by way of observation. Defoe is less interested in how the plague started than in surviving it.

     Dawn: And if you’ve already read the book, wouldn’t you pretty much know what to expect?

     Jim: I’ll buy that these people become the living dead without being able to know why in every respect but one: they aren’t the living dead. They’re suffering from a plague. It seems significantly different from dying and coming back to life.

     Mike: Why?

     Jim: Because the fact of life is never disconnected from them. They can’t be the living dead because they were never dead.

     Mike: But doesn’t a lot of modern zombie literature consider when life ends, or when death ends? In 28 Days Later people don’t even fall down before they become zombies.

     Jim: But it’s an overwhelming change in their humanity.

    Mike: There’s not really a question of whether Defoe’s plague victims change. He has them attacking police officers, killing their own families, running to mass graves to bury themselves among the dead. Because of their infection, these people are significantly disconnected from their humanity. Defoe is exploring the limits of his characters’ humanity – is it really relevant whether their hearts stopped beating first?

     Jim: But a zombie is clearly dead. There’s no moral question about killing them.

     Mike: Have you ever seen a zombie movie?

     Jim: Okay, that was nonsense, but what I mean is: how does the book handle the moral question? It just seems like a more significant question than in typical zombie fare.

     Mike: It is, in some ways. But remember, getting the plague is a death sentence. There’s no cure and the pain will drive you insane, so the way they were dealt with in this book is foundational to the way we imagine we would deal with them today. They were humans, so it was illegal to kill them, improper not to bury them, and if one disappeared then a party would go to search for that one.

     Jim: So the government tried to respect their human dignity.

     Mike: Right. On the other hand, people are required to give notice if they become infected. Infected people are locked up in their homes with their families and guarded by police officers who are assigned to bring them food or medicine, or anything they need.

     Jim: Wait, so if a father is infected, he gets locked into a house with his wife and daughter?

     Mike: Right.

     Jim: Doesn’t he infect his wife and daughter?

     Mike: Does he ever. Also, for the most part they have to pay for their own food and medicine.

     Jim: So that raises one of the questions of basically every modern piece of zombie literature: whether to kill a loved one or become a zombie yourself.

     Mike: Right, and as a crisis it’s somewhat existential, but it’s definitely a desperate one. The family relations are strained, and provisions are scarce, so that people can’t really trust strangers, either. There’s always a suspicion that people are either infected or thieves. This comes to a head here, on page 105. A small group of non-infected people whose story Defoe has been following try to pass through a particular town and the guard tells them “Self-preservation obliges us” to keep them out of the town, and that he’ll get a band of people to attack them if necessary. A rumor begins to go around town that several hundred infected people are outside the gate, and the town does actually organize a group of soldiers to get rid of them.

     Dawn: Even though they weren’t infected?

     Jim: That’s a pretty common aspect of zombie stories. People who have survived are, on the one hand, grateful to be alive, but they also have to be aware that anyone could take that from them. People could take their life or provisions, either on purpose or accident. In zombie stories it’s a way of exploring the limits of humanity, which I understand, but isn’t it working as a more common dystopian trope here?

     Mike: If you really want to stretch it, A Journal of the Plague Year could be a sort of early dystopia, but it doesn’t fit nicely under that label. It doesn’t have any real broad cultural criticism. I mentioned how the government failed the plague victims, but Defoe doesn’t really blame the government for that. When he talks about the policy of shutting up houses on page 126 he outright says that “it was not in the power of the magistrates or of any human methods or policy, to prevent the spreading [of] the infection.” So it’s not the government’s fault. The infection’s spread is inevitable. Dystopias aren’t inevitable.

     Dawn: One of the things that fascinates me about zombie literature is how society functions, but it sounds to me that in Defoe’s world society breaks down into a collection of warring camps. Isn’t the rebuilding of society essential to zombie literature?

      Jim: That’s mostly very modern stuff – 28 Weeks Later, A Questionable Shape….

     Mike: Society and commerce are intertwined in Defoe’s book, as a result of it taking place in the early days of capitalism. So rebuilding the economic infrastructure is inherent to rebuilding society. Here, we see quack doctors, mystics, traders who can’t send off their ships, and then actual doctors and nurses who can’t really do anything. Society is revealed broadly, and chaos and distrust permeate every aspect of it, and the way it's adapting reflects that.

     Jim: One of the scariest things about zombies is all the unexpected ways that the non-infected try to take advantage of and hurt each other.

     Dawn: Sounds bleak.

     Mike: Well it is a plague year.

     Jim: So does it deal with individual’s struggles broadly? The way zombie stories reveal conflicts outside of the physical act of fighting zombies is always an integral part of them.

     Mike: The characters are usually treated at a distance, but when you have ordinary people taking jobs pushing dead carts or guarding infected houses, their tensions should be clear to anyone reading. The distance is useful because it lets Defoe explore more characters than he would have been able to otherwise. It’s not a stretch to extract their individual crises, though.

     Jim: I’ll buy your premise, but I think there’s an essential component of zombie literature that you’re overlooking, which is that zombie literature uses style as argument. Dawn of the Dead uses its budget filming techniques to reinforce its anti-consumerism message, World War Z uses its whole form to reflect its global nature, 28 Days Later uses shaky-cam to reflect the sharp brutality it wants to talk about, A Questionable Shape uses footnotes to emphasize its interiority, and so on. So style as argument or theme happens consistently, but I’m thumbing through this book and not seeing that.

     Mike: While you’re holding the book, how many chapters are in it?

     Jim: Why, none at all.

     Dawn: Had they discovered chapters in the 18th century?

     Mike: Yes. In fact, Defoe’s other most famous work, Robinson Crusoe, has plenty of chapters. So this isn’t just his style. It’s a conscious choice he made for this book in particular – no chapters, no line breaks, and no section headings. Not only that, but it claims to be a journal. We understand that epistolary works have natural divisions, he had every right to divide his work however he wanted. But he doesn’t. Instead, the book reads as though all of this is happening at once. The clearest sense of time progressing in the book is when Defoe lists the number of people buried at the perishes.

     Dawn: So his chapter headings are the burial graphs?

     Mike: That’s an interesting way to read it, but they’re not really consistent enough for me to say that. He really seems to be suggesting that all of this seems to be happening simultaneously, so any divisions in time or narrative would be profoundly artificial.

     Dawn: I heard Defoe might have made up big parts of this book. Isn’t that artificial?

     Mike: I think we should break up.

     Jim: Looks like it’s going to be a long ride home.

[They pack into the car. And it is a long ride home.]

All quotes and page numbers from the Dover Thrift edition of A Journal of the Plague Year, first published in 2001.

 Erick Brucker is currently a student at University of Iowa's Non-Fiction Writing Program.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Philip Graham on Roxane Gay

There Is No Crying Unless You’re Alone in the Bathroom: Roxane Gay on Competitive Scrabble

People slowly filed in with large round cases. One woman’s case was wheeled, like a suitcase. They set their cases on tables and pulled out custom turntable Scrabble boards, timers, tile bags, and racks. They got out their scoring sheets and personal tokens. The games started and the room hushed. —Roxane Gay, from “To Scratch, Claw, or Grope Clumsily or Frantically.”
I am terrible at word games of all sorts, always have been. Years ago, before I refused to participate any longer, if I played Scrabble with three other people, I came in fourth; if playing with two, I came in third; though if I played Scrabble one-on-one, at least I came in second. Once, when my wife Alma was in labor with our first child, to pass away the time between her contractions we played Scrabble with our birthing coach and, well, you can see where I’m going with this, can’t you?
Crushed, utterly crushed in Scrabble by a woman suffering through the pains of giving birth.
I am also terrible at Boggle. I have a clear memory of playing with Alma and our daughter Hannah, then ten years old, and failing miserably to come up with a decent list of words. Last again.

No one is perfect, everyone has a weakness, but I am a writer. Language is supposed to be my well-equipped kitchen, words my fully stocked refrigerator. Yet when it comes to word games all I can do is boil water. So there came a time when I refused to continue pushing across a board the tiles of my humiliation. As for the Daily Jumble: Out of my Life! I write books, I told myself, I don’t need no stinkin’ games, and I had no ambitions to write a story, essay, memoir or novel that included the words slojd, immix, or qindarka.

But still, I have often wondered and worried, shouldn’t I be more word-curious? Would I be a better writer if I memorized spelling lists, massaged more whatever lobe of the brain cradles all those obscure words? As for humiliation, it can, on occasion, be good for the soul . . .
So a couple of years ago, when I learned during a Ninth Letter editorial meeting that the writer Roxane Gay competes in Scrabble tournaments, a deep vein of curiosity and dread was tapped, and I said “Hey, let’s contact her and ask if she’d be interested in writing an essay about that for us.”
Turns out she was, and soon her essay “To Scratch, Claw, or Grope Clumsily or Frantically” arrived, complete with a batch of lively footnotes, and we accepted it as close to instantly as one can get in literary magazine editing.

I had never known that Scrabble players could be competitive with a capital C, probably because I had never bothered to consider any such possibility. So for me, learning of the existence of the North American Scrabble Players Association and the Official Tournament and Club Word List was an anthropological experience, a discovery of a pocket community’s culture and local common sense, guided by a deeply embedded and eloquent participant observer. And now I know, just for starters, that there is “a proper etiquette” for picking tiles from the bag, and a particular “procedure” if too many tiles have been drawn.

New in an unfamiliar town with a new job, far from family and her boyfriend, Roxane Gay had begun descending slowly into lonely crazy until she was invited to join a local Scrabble club (there are over 200 in the U.S., she tells us elsewhere). A first-rate writer who is also an actual word game enthusiast, Gay turns this lifeline into a healthy obsession, and before long she’s competing in her first tournament. Call it newbie’s luck, but after Gay’s first few games garner her two losses and only one win, she somehow finds “the delusion of confidence,” declares to a friend that she will win the tournament, and then she does! Reading of her triumph I could imagine cheerleaders standing on the sidelines, swinging pom-pom circles for her (though I’m fairly certain that the bylaws of the North American Scrabble Players Association wouldn’t permit this). This early success, unfortunately, was not a reliable indicator of future competitive Scrabble glory.

Gay peoples her essay with snap portraits of the quirks of fellow players, particularly those she dubs her “nemeses.” Here we find bad sportsmanship, gloating, false modesty, emotional witchcraft and a kind of Scrabble facial vogueing. To attend a Scrabble tournament is to be surrounded by crowds of people who do not want to lose. “Scrabble players love to talk, at length, with repetition, about their vocabulary triumphs,” Gay writes, and she herself is not immune to this habit. We hear of her snagging 90 points for TRIPLEX, she gives us a list of a string of her winning scores (“389-312; 424-244; 352-312; 396-366”), but she’s also not hesitant about detailing her losses and, sometimes, her simply dumb tactical decisions. “Time and again, lower ranked players taught me painful lessons,” she admits, and a good part of the pleasure reading of Gay’s adventures comes from her engagingly self-deprecating persona.

Roxane Gay’s beautifully written essay, dead serious and yet often head-shakingly funny, is a tale not of triumph but of hard-fought parity at best, since over the long haul the odds in competitive Scrabble seem more akin to blackjack or roulette. Those little arenas of board space with their branching designs of tiles serve as a metaphor of fate, which is why they can provoke so many competitors to batty behavior, but they also provide a training ground for coping with life’s larger setbacks or how best to accept the occasional clear sky.

Spurred by Gay’s joy of the fray, I finally gave in to my wife’s repeated suggestions that I download Words with Friends, which is a kind of baby Scrabble. Whether on an iPhone or iPad, the electronic board is for my eyes only, and when the app silently announces that my desperate five-letter flail of JOVID is “not an acceptable word,” no penalty is involved. I can take as long as I want to puzzle out a move, and games can often stretch over several days. I still get whipped fairly regularly. But I’ve learned to shrug off defeat, nurse my wounds, and plot revenge.


Roxane Gay’s essay, “To Scratch, Claw, or Grope Clumsily” was published in Ninth Letter, Vol. 9, No. 2 (Fall/Winter 2012-13). Her essay has been included in the list of “Notable Essays of 2012” by Robert Atwan and Cheryl Strayed, the editors of the Best American Essays 2013 anthology.


Philip Graham is the author of seven books of fiction and nonfiction, most recently Braided Worlds, the second volume of a memoir of Africa co-authored with his wife, the anthropologist Alma Gottlieb. His short story collections The Art of the Knock and Interior Design and novel How to Read an Unwritten Language will be reprinted in Dzanc Books’ contemporary fiction e-book reprint series in late 2013.

Graham’s work has appeared in The New Yorker, Washington Post Magazine, North American Review, Paris Review, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and elsewhere. He teaches at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, where he is a co-founder and the current editor-at-large of the literary/arts magazine Ninth Letter. He also teaches at the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA program in Writing. His short essays on the craft of writing can be found at