Back in the Wren’s Nest

Joel Chandler Harris turns 170

My mother used to read to us, but she never read us Uncle Remus. We weren’t from the South and also she hated dialect. I can understand. With dialect, a reader doesn’t just listen to the writer’s words but enact them in weird voices. Not everyone is up for that.

In anticipation of the anniversary of the 170th birthday of Joel Chandler Harris at the Wren’s Nest in Atlanta this December 9, I sat down with his Complete Tales of Uncle Remus (compiled by Richard Chase, 1983 [1955], 808 pages!) and went through the first book, Uncle Remus: His Songs and His Sayings, from Chapter 1 “Uncle Remus Initiates the Little Boy” to Chapter 32 “The Sad Fate of Mr. Fox.” Trying to read the regular silent way, the dialect was torturous. I sounded out phrases I couldn’t understand and figured some of them out – e.g., that “bimeby” means “by and by.” Eventually I gave up on silent reading. I started hearing an oral tale spoken by me.

Continue reading Back in the Wren’s Nest

Flying hair, bright eyes, ruddy cheeks

Atlanta’s Little Women Collaborative Altered Book Project

A teaser: Which March sister does Louisa May Alcott refer to as Atlanta? (i.e., the huntress and sprinter in Greek mythology who agreed to marry any man who could outrun her, spearing those who couldn’t)***

This year is the sesquicentennial of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women (1868), a book that is regarded, on the one hand, as a heart-warming tale of love, nuclear family, small-town community, and wholesome Christian goodness and a perfect read for the holiday season, or, on the other hand, as a pioneering work of distinct and independent female characters challenging the feminine norms of Civil War era society that continues to inspire girls in our own time. And a gamut in between. Sesquicentennial discussions and celebrations are happening all around the world, from the Alcott epicenter at Orchard House in Concord, MA, all the way to the Southern Hemisphere (see this compelling interview), from the pages of USA Today to those of the Paris Review. A sign the of book’s lasting popularity is that at the end of October Little Women was voted #8 of 100 best-loved American novels in The Great American Read. And take note: As part of this year’s festivities, high school students still have a couple of more weeks to submit to the Orchard House’s Louisa May Alcott short story contest (deadline November 29).

Little Women is more complicated and nuanced than it may at first seem. Continue reading Flying hair, bright eyes, ruddy cheeks

Atlanta and the Bonfire of the Vanities

Gary Shteyngart connects 1980s New York with contemporary Atlanta

The New Yorker doesn’t feature fiction set in Atlanta very often, but it did so this June with “The Luck of Kokura” by Gary Shteyngart. Barry Cohen, the protagonist of the story, is a hedge fund manager who flees a complicated life in Manhattan and probable insider trading charges, riding the “Hound” (Greyhound bus) to Atlanta and crashing the apartment of a former employee who lives there. “Crashing” captures the spontaneity but not the flavor of his stay, as the former employee Jeff Park lives in a “palatial” 4,000-square-foot luxury condo downtown with a “frigate-size couch” and a button-operated Lutron window shades ($350+ each), wears Lanvin sneakers ($500+) and a “seven-figure” Rolex watch, drives both a Ferrari California and a Bentley ($200,000+ apiece) and parks in special VIP zones for luxury cars. Barry’s own obsession with luxury watches seems the ultimate in conspicuous consumption in an era when time is incorporated into cell phones.  Some Atlanta-New York comparisons seem odd (how is the BeltLine like the High Line?), but a focus on Atlanta’s conspicuous consumption seems right on. As does its focus on the haves and the have-nots, those who are lucky and those who are not.

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$3490 cocktail dress, Tom Ford, Shops of Buckhead (Atlanta)
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$5.99 cocktail dress, Goodwill, Tucker (Atlanta)

Shteyngart’s opening reference to a Keith Haring painting hanging in Jeff Park’s Atlanta apartment and the premise of the financial trader in free fall immediately evoke the 1980s and, at least to me, the blockbuster novel that satirized that era, Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities (1987). “Luck” takes place during the 2016 Republican convention Continue reading Atlanta and the Bonfire of the Vanities

The last sweet scent of cane

An American white and a non-American black read Jean Toomer’s Cane (1923) and all this is brought to life through an encounter with Oluwamuyiwa Winifred Adebayo

Reading is listening to the words of others. I picked up Jean Toomer’s Cane to hear words from an old rural black Georgia that was still touched by slavery, a root of present-day race relations. As a white outsider who did not know the South when I moved to Atlanta in 2005, I was looking for an inside view. What I found was an appreciation for black beauty and a deeper realization that I cannot know what it is like to live in a black body.

I had missed my chance to talk about Cane to Dr. Rudolph P. Byrd , founder of the James Weldon Johnson Institute for the Study of Race and Difference, Emory College of Arts and Sciences (see excellent video here), who was on faculty at the Emory’s Graduate Institute of the Liberal Arts, where I’d come to study. He was at the time co-editing a new edition of Cane, and he died in 2011, the year it was published. I remember Dr. Byrd’s elegant dress and demeanor from passing in the halls.

Norton Cane cover

In reading Rudolph P. Byrd and Henry Louis Gates, Jr., I learned that Toomer was not an insider to old rural black Georgia culture.  A mixed-race middle-class Washingtonian, Continue reading The last sweet scent of cane

Parliament of [F]owls

Geoffrey Chaucer meets Atlanta parade artist Chantelle Rytter

If there was ever a time to speak of love – love of each other, of nature, of country – that time is now. Geoffrey Chaucer, one of the first poets to write in English (rather than the elite Latin or French), shows us a way to speak of it in Parliament of Fowls, his exquisite tribute to love and mating.

I was reminded of Parliament early one morning last year while driving through my neighborhood with the windows rolled down.  A raucous chorus of birds called out, and I turned to see a crowd of them gathered on a lawn as if holding a meeting of some kind. The fact that it was near Valentine’s Day made it all the more fitting.

Pauleen Eccles, A Parliament of Rooks (licensed for reuse by Creative Commons)

Chaucer’s poem celebrates birds of all kinds who gather annually on Saint Valentine’s Day in the garden of the Goddess of Love’s temple to pick their mates.

Continue reading Parliament of [F]owls