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The following review appeared 14 December 2015 on the Mark Twain Forum.
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In her introduction to Writing America: Literary Landmarks from Walden Pond to Wounded Knee, Shelley Fisher Fishkin provides a concise statement of her mission, giving notice that her book "examines intersections between public history and literary history, exploring the physical places that shaped the lives and the art of authors who had a major impact on American literary history . . ." (p. 1). In detailed explorations of thirteen sites spanning wide swaths of time and geography, Fishkin weaves a tapestry of culture, history, and individuals, many not in the forefront of the accepted American literary canon, that underscores the critical importance of background elements often ignored, even by those who appreciate the great American "classics." Despite the implied premise of the importance of connections of literature to these places and "landmarks," Writing America is no mere travelogue for the student of American literatures.
This book lists and describes over 150 sites on the National Register of historic sites with connections to American literary creations and focuses more narrowly on thirteen of these sites and regions to highlight the diversity mirrored by the writing of authors including the well known, e.g., Henry David Thoreau, Mark Twain, Herman Melville, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Maxine Hong Kingston, Walt Whitman, Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes. One of the chief attractions of this book, however, is its inclusion of lesser-known writers, in detailed discussions, including Anzia Yezierska, Lawson Fusao Inada, Abraham Cahan, Gloria Anzaldua, Nella Larsen, Rolando Hinojosa and Morris Rosenfeld. Most readers who are not literature majors--including this reviewer--will finish reading this book with the distinct feeling that they have been cheated in their heretofore lack of awareness of the scope of the real American literary canon. In the process of reading this book, the reader is exposed to descriptions of a variety of environments that fostered unique perspectives of the Americas as lived in by their chroniclers. A portrait of the Lower East Side and its tenements and sweatshops, for example, underscores the determination required to escape, in short respites, its unrelenting stress through creations like the vital Yiddish theatres of the first decades of the twentieth century. In an era when politicians are shrill in their fretting about "illegal" Hispanic immigrants, Fishkin's chapter, "Mexican American Writers in the Borderlands of Culture," underscores, through recorded literary memories, the lack of a "natural" historic border, citing writers like Gloria Anzaldua, whose border is a "1,950 mile-long open wound" which runs down the length of her body (p. 305).
The connections between person, place, experience and, ultimately, writing, are frequently demonstrated through discussion of individual perspectives and selective samplings from the writings of the authors. Thus, we are given a primer of Thoreau's lessons on civil disobedience, solitude, nature and simplicity in the context of the peaceful confines of Walden Pond, where, as Fishkin reminds us, using his words, his meditations "were not time subtracted from my life, but so much over and above my usual allowance This was sheer idleness to my fellow-townsmen, no doubt; but if the birds and flowers had tried me by their standard, I should not have been found wanting" (p. 55). In her discussion of Sinclair Lewis's Babbitt, Fishkin uses the words of his creation, the real estate salesman and town booster George Babbitt, to illustrate the qualities required as "signs of civilization," e.g., "one motor car for every five and seven-eighths persons in the city . . ." (p. 236). Highlighting the diversity of cultures and languages, we find, in a chapter anchored in the tragedy of the Wounded Knee massacre, Nicholas Black Elk's prose recounting of his first-hand experience of the Ghost Dance at Wounded Knee Creek and the subsequent killings, and the mocking verse of Zitkala-Sa, a Yankton, South Dakota, Sioux writer, using a familiar patriotic hymn, "My Country, 'Tis of Thee," as the framework for her observation, as follows: "Land where OUR fathers died" (p. 158). Elsewhere, Morris Rosenfeld, writing in Yiddish, conveys, in "The Sweatshop," the dehumanizing impact of the mind-numbing work which was too often the fate of the immigrant seeking a better life in the New World. Another setting, Angel Island in San Francisco Bay, where thousands of Chinese immigrants were processed until its closing in 1940, is also the source of literature born of suffering. In this case it is the poetry scrawled on its walls in Chinese characters by detainees who, as Fishkin observes, "were . . . in prison, innocent men and women detainees against their will, because of racist laws designed to keep them and other working people who looked like them from entering the country" (p.247). In conjunction with Fishkin's narration and the well-chosen illustrations, excerpts from the selected writers give a multidimensional perspective to each of the stops on this literary road trip.
Common to many of these explorations is a focus on the racial, ethnic, political and economic barriers encountered by sub-populations whose experience of the dominant culture is documented in a variety of literary forms. This tone is set in the first pages of the introduction, featuring a photograph of Hannibal, Missouri's newest tourist attraction, a museum named "Jim's Journey: The Huck Finn Freedom Center," and an accompanying discussion of Hannibal's reluctant grappling with its racist and slavery past. In subsequent chapters, the suffering and predations endured by African Americans, Native Americans, Asian Americans, European immigrants populating the tenements of turn-of-the-century New York, and Mexican American writers of the border regions are sometimes laid bare in painful, undeniable detail, as the impetus for great writing produced by each of these American populations. In one of the latter chapters, "American Writers and Dreams of the Silver Screen," writer David Bradley provides a very personal account of the fear and alarm engendered by D. W. Griffith's incorporation of grotesque racial stereotypes in his film The Birth of a Nation, and anti-Mexican racism is highlighted in the discussion of Edna Ferber's novel, Giant, and its movie recreation. Racial stereotypes can work in any direction, as shown in Fishkin's discussion of the novel Caballero, by the Texas-born writer Jovita Gonzalez, which depicts "the ignorance and prejudice that made intermarriage so dreaded for many old families in this region" (p. 316). Another form of oppression is highlighted in Fishkin's chapter titled "The Revolt from the Village," in which the boredom and press for conformity experienced by Sinclair Lewis in his hometown of Sauk Centre, Minnesota becomes the inspiration for novels like Main Street and Babbitt. Anyone wishing to pursue one of these explorations in detail has as a convenient starting point the extensive reference listings included in the "For Further Reading" sections at the end of each chapter.
Every reader of Writing America will approach it with their individual reading histories, likely giving rise to other possible choices and preferences of venues for discussions of connections between writers, places and cultures. One could legitimately ask, what about the Red Cloud, Nebraska of Willa Cather and Antonia Shimerda, William Faulkner's Oxford, Mississippi, or Lisa See's Los Angeles? The impossibility of creating an unwieldy, encyclopedic work following Fishkin's model is obvious, but, just as obvious is her judicious choice of sites and subjects, classic and contemporary, with a diversity of geography and cultures that can truly be asserted as representative of the multitude of Americas. More important, however, is the all-encompassing perspective intentionally adopted by Fishkin as a framework for consideration of each of the separate authors and subcultures chosen for Writing America. These vignettes can be seen as repetitions of a template for future readings, i.e., instilling, if not already present, a predilection to inquire, while in the process of reading, about the sources of poetry and fiction not immediately accessible.
The sixty-three black-and-white photos and drawings included in this volume provide glimpses of writers, homes, and environments juxtaposed with the subject matter to "flesh out," as it were, Fishkin's stated intentions. Some are familiar to students of American literature, e.g., the photo of Twain standing in front of his boyhood home in Hannibal, taken during his last visit, in 1902. Others, like that of the parlor of the Paul Laurence Dunbar House in Dayton, Ohio, likely less familiar, illustrate the economic status he achieved, despite the obstacles faced by an African American of his era attempting to survive on his writing. A photo of the populated reading room at the 135th Street branch of the New York Public Library gives us a glimpse of the living center of the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s. Some photos can be described as downright chilling, or revolting, like the portrait of the assembled family of Japanese ancestry, packed, tagged and awaiting transport to an internment camp in 1942 or the still depicting the prelude to a lynching of a black man--actually a white actor in blackface--from the film The Birth of a Nation. Photographic portraits of writers like Anzia Yezierska, a Russian immigrant settling in the tenements of New York in the 1890s, or Arthur Schomburg, whose lifelong dedication made available an archive of writings by African American writers that would otherwise be lost, attest to the comprehensive nature of each of these multi-faceted vignettes, not to mention the monumental achievement this work represents from the perspective of pure research.
A recommendation that Fishkin's book be required reading by undergraduate and graduate literary majors would, certainly, be considered appropriate, except for the fact that such an encomium would be the kiss of death, and misses the attraction that this book undoubtedly has for readers unlikely to inhabit either of these categories, including this reviewer. The writer Erica Jong has entered her verdict, posted on the book's dustjacket, that "She writes like an angel," an odd phrase of praise, considering that Fishkin's international reputation is largely based on her Mark Twain scholarship, explorations of facets of a career relying on a "pen warmed up in hell," but, no matter. Perhaps this is Jong's acknowledgement of Fishkin's ability to write plainly and without academic jargon, a blessing to the book's readers. Among the other strong endorsements of this book, that of Junot Diaz, author of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, that "Writing America is a triumph of scholarship and passion, a profound exploration of the many worlds which comprise our national canon . . ." hits the mark exactly.
If it is Fishkin's intent to blur the artificial distinctions between the metaphorical and literal landscapes of literature, she has, through the selected vignettes, succeeded beyond any reasonable doubt. As an abstraction, it is easy to accept the proposition that all great writing is in some way connected to time and place, but Writing America renders this assumption so obvious that its readers are less likely to engage with fiction writing absent an implanted predisposition to hunt for its roots beyond even the imagination of the writers included in this unique survey. A book with this effect, even on its publication, can confidently be predicted to encourage a paradigm-shifting look at authors and their inspirations, including the terrain in which their writing is rooted.
Shelley Fisher Fishkin is Professor of English and Director of the Department of American Studies, Stanford University, Palo Alto, California.
Martin Zehr is a psychologist in private practice in Kansas
City, Missouri and neuropsychologist at the Marion Bloch Neuroscience Institute
at St. Luke's Hospital, Kansas City, Missouri. He is also a member of the
Board of Directors of the Mark Twain Boyhood Home and Museum in Hannibal,