After six decades as a prominent print journal, Washington and Lee's acclaimed literary journal Shenandoah is available at shenandoahliterary.org. The digital version - Volume 62, Number 2, is now online. The homepage also includes a Poem of the Week, an Archive Feature of the Month, audio files of contributors reading their work, an essay on featured artist, William Dunlap; brief and extended reviews and a rotating series of 100 arresting quotations. Those seeking information about submissions, prizes and the publication's history - from Tom Wolfe through Flannery O'Connor and W. H. Auden up to Rita Dove and Charles Wright- will find a wealth of information on the site. Further links reveal a description of the WLU English Department's Internship in Literary Editing program, along with comments by both the winter 2013 interns and recent graduates. All aspects of the journal are interactive and invite reader comment. Finally, Shenandoah's blog "Snopes" will introduce provocative topics and encourage readers to engage in discussion. Bloggers will include staff members, interns and special guests.
For over half a century Shenandoah has been publishing splendid poems, stories, essays and reviews which display passionate understanding, formal accomplishment and serious mischief.
Founded in 1950 by a group of Washington and Lee University faculty and students, Shenandoah has achieved a wide reputation as one of the country's premier literary magazines. Work from the magazine's pages has appeared in Best American Short Stories, Best American Poems, Best American Essays, Best American Spiritual Writing, The O'Henry Prize, New Stories from the South and The Pushcart Prize, as well as numerous other anthologies and quite literally thousands of collections by the original authors. Recent issues have featured Pulitzer winners Natasha Trethewey, Claudia Emerson and Ted Kooser, as well as fiction by James Lee Burke, George Singleton, Alyson Hagy, Chris Offutt, Bret Anthony Johnston and Pam Durban.
In the modern era where the online world leads to people posting pictures of their #delicious meals and over-sharing details of their lives that no one, not even their parents really want to hear, a strange wave has overtaken memoir, causing the genre, as a whole, to suffer.
At one time memoir was considered a genre left for literary individuals or cultural figures who had livedÂ life to the fullest or undergone some process of self-discovery that made their stories worthy of a public audience. But in recent years, this type of memoir has become overlooked and has been replaced, like a lot of great literature is, by works of nonfiction written by celebrities whose rise to stardom is deemed worthy of a book (i.e. whichever B-list celebrity publishers decide will make them the most money by writing about their drug problems, or embarrassing sexual endeavors) and memoirs that have on-screen potential.
These days it seems that everyone with a computer and the ability to form a sentence (although not always a grammatically correct one) thinks they can and should write a memoir; there is even a Memoir Writing for Dummies manual available for those just starting out. This both upsets me and excites me as a writer and reader of nonfiction. On the downside I see how this growing genre is becoming overly commercialized, but I also see how the influx of people writing memoir and creative nonfiction could potentially result in new icons of the genre.
It feels as if memoir is currently being broken down into subgenres, with literary memoir only making up a small percentage of the books being written. The first subgenre surging in popularity is the often-frivolous celebrity memoir. These little gems have been popular and profitable for decades now, with nonfiction publishers clinging to the notion that the general public will want to know how stars and the elite made their fames and fortunes (or lost them both). In 2014 alone, Amy Poehler, Oprah Winfrey, Neil Patrick Harris, Lena Dunham, Alan Cumming, Rob Lowe, Danielle Fishel, Mario Lopez, and Joan Rivers all came out withÂ memoirs. Other memoirs of the past decade include the highly successful Bossypants by Tina Fey and Mindy Kalingâ€™s book, Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns). I have read many of these titles, and though I often found them comical and, occasionally, well written, they seem to blend into one indistinguishable memoir after time, with only a few strange or innovative pieces among them. Lena Dunhamâ€™s Not that Kind of Girl: A Young Woman Tells You What She’s â€œLearnedâ€ stands out to me in particular, as her style and content are compelling and Dunham is seemingly unafraid to discuss taboo issues. But even Dunham, who went to Oberlin College for creative writing, slips into an advice-giving tone at time that I find clichÃ©d.
Along with the celebrity memoir subgenre, the memoir fit for movie production has flourished. New additions to this subgenre include American Sniper and Wild. But before this year many other memoirs have been further commercialized by Hollywood, including, but not limited to, Not Without My Daughter, Marley & Me: Life and Love With the Worldâ€™s Worst Dog, Eat, Pray, Love, and Girl, Interrupted. Even the well-written and intriguing story of former Smith College student Piper Kerman has been claimed by Netflix and altered for television purposes. While Iâ€™ve read many of these works and been entertained and captivated by some of the stories I cannot say that these are the most worthy of public acclaim.
As the caliber of writing in these memoir subgenres improves, there is the ever-popular high school reading list memoir. This rather small, yet common, list is made up of the classics. They mainly follow the lives of famous historical figures or leaders whoâ€™s works are now associated with societal change. This list consists of books like Anne Frankâ€™s A Diary of a Young Girl, Ellie Wieselâ€™s Night, Maya Angelouâ€™s I Know Why the Cage Bird Sings, and Barbara Ehrenreichâ€™s Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America. After reading every one of these memoirs throughout my high school career, I came to appreciate how open each of these people write about their lives and the injustices they endured throughout them, and I do think they are important touchstones of the genre; however, so many more nonfiction collections and memoirs have come out since the previously listed were published.
While I will not blatantly recommend against reading any of these subgenres â€“ as I have read and enjoyed many of them already â€“ Iâ€™m reluctant to endorse these branches of memoir/nonfiction. Though many of them are often entertaining and good for a thoughtless read on the beach, these types of memoirs do not give an accurate depiction of the genre as a whole. Memoirs like reality star Nicole “Snooki” Polizziâ€™s 2011 memoir Confessions of a Guidette is not a piece of literature that young nonfiction writers should aspire to emulate. Instead of emphasizing celebrities, drama, and historic figures, we need to consider emphasizing emerging memoirists who make the ordinary extraordinary or who are able to write with such candor and control that readers can tell they are reading the works of literary masters. I want to see memoirs like Mary Karrâ€™s The Liarâ€™s Club and Lit, Joan Didionâ€™s The Year of Magical Thinking, or Jo Ann Beardâ€™s The Boys of My Youth, memoirs that made me want to become a writer, get more recognition and readership. I want truly remarkable memoirs to be the works people first think of when they think of the genre and I want the celebrity fluff to take a backseat for a while. But maybe Iâ€™m just being too optimistic about what the general public is willing to read.
Resurrecting “Dirty Little Billy”
1. Spoiler Alert
2. No animals were harmed or confused in the production of this commentary.
3. Authorâ€™s cousin will be mentioned in passing.
4. Geezer Subject Matter Warning: Western Films, naked knives, Gary Busey.
Some things treasured but believed lost are still splendid when theyâ€™re found or revived. A few nights ago I stayed up late to catch Dirty Little Billy, a gritty, darkly funny western I saw and admired when it first appeared in late 1972 but which, to my disappointment, seemed to vanish from public view like a woodstove dropped into a swamp. The filmâ€™s narrative is a highly fictionalized account of Billy Bonneyâ€™s first steps from snot-nosed sullen teenager to pistolero, and the source of its fascination for me was twofold: the grimy, shadow- strangled atmosphere of the storyâ€™s Kansas railroad-stop village and Michael J. Pollardâ€™s portrayal of William Henry McCarty as a kind of Huck on crack. This film helped shape my appetite and concept of the western, and I have often, while reading or viewing western stories, pined for it.
Most moviegoers recall Pollard from his Academy Award nominated role as C. W. Moss, gas pump monkey/wheelman/sidekick to Bonnie and Clyde in the 1967 Arthur Penn film that launched Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway into the cinema wowasphere. Pollardâ€™s puckish-punk face and dazzled eyes are enough to make him memorable at a glance, but his shearing laugh and glee over souped-up cars and gunfire cut against the grain of that cartoon grin to stamp him in the mind unforgettably as a lethal innocent.
In Dirty Little Billy, heâ€™s at it again, going from repressed and lethargic teen to ballistic savant in just a few days, or in real time, an hour and a half. The filmâ€™s narrative is fairly simple â€“ dragged along a muddy road to a dilapidated farm where the Irish ladâ€™s severe step-father wants to see how quickly Billyâ€™s palms can become huge blisters, he goes AWOL and falls in with Goldie, who — though seemingly only slightly Billyâ€™s senior — terrorizes the town. Now called Billy, instead of Henry McCarty, Pollard joins his mentor hunkered down in Goldieâ€™s stronghold, a ramshackle bar where Goldie’s his girl Berl (perhaps â€œBerylâ€ on a clodhopperâ€™s tongue), at the sound of a bell, retreats to a back room where she is repeatedly deflowered for chump change. Along with a couple of unsavory senior citizens, the trio drinks endlessly and sloppily, plays cards against rubes, exudes bile and easy sentiment and engage in sex and often-clownish combat. Eventually the town decides to hire an exterminator. Mayhem follows, with Billy and Goldie escaping to the badlands, where they employ their wiles and Billyâ€™s newfound sharpshooter talent to launch their life as nomadic rogues.
The history of Billy on screen is long and various. Roy Rogers, Johnny Mack Brown and Audie Murphy played him as a misunderstood adolescent or simple maligned hero, Howard Hughes offers Jack Bertel in the role of a wounded and romantic but snake-minded Billy in The Outlaw, a film famous for something other than Billyâ€™s pair of six-shooters. Paul Newman in The Left-Handed Gun rendered Billy (by that stage of his life Bonney, BtK) savvy, more sinned against than sinning and, well, Newman-eyed righteous avenger. There were more Billys in heaven and earth than are dreamt of . . . , and room for a whole gallery of interpretations, but perhaps the death blow to DLB, the product of Charles Moss and Stan Dragotiâ€™s imaginations, was Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, with its star-peppered cast a far cry from DLB. Singing star Kris Kristofferson is a rangy, mean, charismatic and sexy Billy in this endgame display of Bâ€™s long 21-year life, and James Coburn plays assassin/sheriff Pat Garrett, while icons like Slim Pickens, Chill Wills, Jack Elam et alia show up, Rita Coolidge plays Bâ€™s paramour â€œMarieâ€ (really Paulita Maxwell) and one of his henchman, a wise cracker called â€œAlias,â€ is played by Robert Zimmerman (aka Dylan, who supplies some of the sound track â€“ â€œKnockinâ€™ on Heavenâ€™s Door,â€ for instance). Big budget, Sam Peckinpah in the directorâ€™s gurney. I remember loving it in a counter-culture way â€“ just suppose Billy and his pards were like a counter-culture folk music posse, living large and dying hard. . . . And I feel obliged to say that Emilio Estevez’s brat pack and superficially hysterical portrayal of Billy in Young Guns never seemed more than a horse opera, with it’s suggestion that Billy outlived his supposed death to show up years later as ancient Brushy Bill and tell his story.Â That frame device seemed too transparently lifted from Little Big Man that it didn’t add anything to the inquiry into the nature of Billy and the narrative of his life and “career.”
Iâ€™ve seen the Kris/Rita/Bob version four or five times, but it never eclipsed that hour and a half I spent staring at Pollardâ€™s mobile features and hearing his elvish voice. Heâ€™s an even five and a half feet tall and comes across as a clown whoâ€™s hiding something, a benign naif about to blossom into something truly peculiar amid deep sienna scenery, twisted and cracked planks, scruffy horse-like quadrupeds.
Perhaps a healthier response to DLB would be disgust, but I canâ€™t wash the fascination out of my distaste for the nightmare realism. It doesnâ€™t hurt that Lee Purcell is great as Berl, Richard Evans viable as Goldie and a small cast of helpful â€œcharacters,â€ including Ed Lauter in a small role and an early, not quite complete, teen-mimicking version of Gary Busey, who is already almost all toothy sneer and madness. And Nick Nolte, momentarily.
Why did DLB vanish so quickly and completely? It surely has a lot to do with other westerns released about the same time. The antihero was riding high, and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid brought a new glamor, even beauty, to the category. The Redford/Newman combination was immediately loveable: they were slick and sleek and pretty, mischievous, gallant, witty and naughty. Not real.
For realism, Iâ€™ll take the incompetent nightmare post-poker gunfight in a half-lit bar â€“ shadows shoot at shadows, Colts misfire, breakage, screaming, crawling, a drunk bystander the only casualty. Or the knife fight between Berl and the other card sharperâ€™s woman. The two combatantâ€™s slash and jab in a fight that seems unchoreographed skirmish between two snarling doxies who have surely wielded blades before. What stuck with me about this combat was that the director found a middle path between todayâ€™s orgy of wounds and blood and the euphemisms of days gone by. The wounds are real enough, but the muted hues and blear prevent Technicolor indulgence typical of that era of Straw Dogs. I have seen fights on and off screen, and this claustrophobic one was one of the most unforgettable and terrifying ones, nothing like the haymakers of the Wayne era or the martial arts of the current scene.
Also high on the realism scale are Billyâ€™s desperation, his yearning for identity, freedom, a voice. Heâ€™s a follower looking for something to be proud of it, and grisly as his search is, he finds a self in the end, though one with a short shelf life. All this managed with a humor of action and expression thatâ€™s like a dark Harpo thrown in the wilderness. The transitions and juxtapositions are shrewd and ruthless, reminiscent of the Ray Carver of Furious Seasons, before he was Lished into something more marketable, but that’s another story.
In the decades since I first saw the movie I’ve developed an appetite for the western which prosecutes its agenda through atmosphere, tempers its violence with humor and refuses to wallow in either abbatoir splatter or romantic conceit.Â The necessities of daily survival were taxing, and the temptation to be shifty was stronger than most men and women.Â I won’t say I could recommend Dirty Little Billy to everyone, but it’s an example of what we now call the “independent film” which offers an alternative fiction where the facts are few and the legends ossified.Â And surely there’s room for the twisted cherub Pollard embodies in our BtK puzzle.
P.S. on the page, Michael Ondaatje’s The Collected Works of Billy the Kid is worth a look.
The one extant tintype of the notorious BtK, as it is usually seen, with the negative flipped.
Rebel Yell Is Not Just a Bourbon
When the inexhaustible Stars and Bars debate rekindled due to removal of some replica battle flags at Washington and Lee, I watched out my office window as the unreconstructed partisans paraded their Confederate colors in front of the building VMI professor Stonewall Jackson briefly called home. On special occasions, like the birthday of Robert E. Lee (a date shared with Dolly and Poe), they came out in force and serenaded the neighborhood with â€œDixieâ€ and â€œI Am a Good Old Rebel.â€ Passing supporters would honk their truck horns or shout encouragement, but I was puzzled by the absence of any attempt at the legendary Rebel Yell.
I wondered why, other than possible local ordinances, what had once been such a popular mode of regional expression was missing in action, and now Craig A. Warren has offered an explanation and a lot more in his soon-to-be-released and perhaps-definitive study The Rebel Yell: A Cultural History (Alabama, 2014), in which he chronicles the history, myths, aural analyses, associations and ultimate faded fate of the battle cry (which troops in homespun gray or butternut also used at celebrations and during prison camp baseball games). Itâ€™s a fascinating, if specialized, account and well worth the afternoon it took me to read its 162 pages of primary text and not a few of the numerous footnotes, which are substantive in their own right.
Warren offers information and speculation on the life of the yell from cacophonous battlefield to a Louisa May Alcott novel to reunions of veterans, analysis of the many audial representations of the barbaric yawp. He cites and compares the many memories of the yell from war survivors who were asked about it later, and he opens up the arguments about the many possible origins of the shout Shelby Foote called â€œa rolling wave of soundâ€ (Cherokee, fox hunters, the â€œflocks of raucous birdsâ€ Greek hoplites simulated and more). Then he has a go at the myths, such as the twisted history that credits Stonewallâ€™s command to â€œyell like furiesâ€ at Manassas: turns out the yell predates that fight by months. And who wouldnâ€™t want to know of the many sites where the cry later echoed, Iuka to San Juan Hill?
What we should have all guessed long ago but were â€“ most of us â€“ too legend-smitten to realize is that different rebels at different places and times were bound to utter various noises, as the yell(s) had no recognizable pitch pattern or rhythm, rhyme or lexical sequence. Improvisation was the name of the game, so it was a wholly unpredictable pandemonium of sound that possessed such terrifying and liturgical power.
Warren also reveals the sometime-unfortunate results for the yellers. For instance, in the midst of all that black powder smoke, a unitâ€™s exact deployment might be hard to determine, but once the ranks lifted their voices, their position might be clear enough to attract artillery fire. On occasion, maybe a whisper would have been wiser, if less provocative and adrenalin-jolting.
Among the fascinations Warren presents are the descriptions of the cry from line soldiers (Ambrose Bierce: â€œugliest sound that any mortal ever heardâ€) or a Wisconsin veteran â€“ my favorite â€“ who recalled in 1909 the â€œcorkscrew sensation that it sends down your backbone,â€ to civilian spectators and others who were not present at all and had it second or third hand (Stephen Crane: â€œprolonged pealingsâ€ of voice). Suffice it to say that the demon rasp conferred nerve, gave heart to the yellers, who were proud that their cry was not the regular and rhythmic chant of the yellees, their â€œfactory Yankeeâ€ adversaries, who were in turn proud that they didnâ€™t put people in mind of wild animals. Though much is in dispute, no one ever said the yell was mellifluous.
In the business arena: the wheated bourbon brand Rebel Yell, according to Warren, claims 1849 as its date of origin, but in fact the label (complete with sabre-wielding Confederate cavalryman at full gallop) was first marketed in 1936 by Stitzel-Weller of Louisville. Evidently some emotions had to be allowed to cool, others to rekindle before the yell could be commodified with impunity.
I wonâ€™t even try to recount the controversy (fueled by no less a light than Foote) that there was a particular â€œmelodyâ€ to the rebel yell, and that it was lost when the last practitioners and their pupils had all gone on to a sweeter demesne. But thatâ€™s another chapter worth reading.
The most intriguing discussion in the volume for me involved the way that the yell gave way to the Stars and Bars as the signature of unreconstructed states’ righters. It transpired pretty suddenly when the Dixiecrat (rogue Southern Democrat) Party was formed in Birmingham in July of 1948. â€œThe voice of the Confederacy,â€ which had become an historical oddity, gave way to a symbol that seemed more bellicose and reminiscent of a slave-holding society, given the general associations of â€œflag waving.â€ Make no mistake about it, the Dixiecrats knew what they were doing, and â€œheroic heritageâ€ didnâ€™t play much of a role. The flag was, as Warren quotes John Coskiâ€™s The Confederate Battle Flag: Americaâ€™s Most Embattled Emblem (Harvard, 2005): â€œthe chosen symbol of people dedicated to defending statesâ€™ rights as a means to preserve a social order founded upon white supremacy.â€ Thatâ€™s the next book in this category I want to read.
So it turns out that Lexington’s shaggy flaggers are au courant in their expression of Old South revivalism. Though for a century the much disputed and often revered Southern scream was the dominant symbolic expression of the Lost Cause, the visible battle flag (easily displayed on private property, bumpers or as body ink) has replaced the combination of barbaric yawp, peacock help, berserker shout, foxhunterâ€™s yodel and twang-drawl caterwaul of owl-jackal-banshee-wolf-wraith and (maybe) articulation of Martian indigestion. The yell carries an element of fraternity Saturday night howls with it, and is more easily dismissible as hi-jinks. Besides, it has not played a role in Klan festivities and atrocities. The flag is no more martial in origin, but it has become incendiary.
For any who might want to revive the Southern squeal, the good news is that I have a neighbor who swears his cousin Bud in Dalton, Georgia, has the last extant specimen of the yell captured in a jar stored in his root cellar, and he plans to unleash it on the 150th anniversary of the arrest of Jeff Davis. Cousin Bud promises a jubilee and reenactment of the flight and capture of that Confederate executive with an eye to proving that â€“ in the night, in the downpour, with all the attendant ballyhoo and confusion â€“ the boys in blue apprehended the wrong man, no matter whose raincoat he wore. What Bud plans to do with this revelation (or rebelation) is a mystery to me.
p.s. Donâ€™t expect Billy Idolâ€™s album â€œRebel Yellâ€ to shed much light on this subject; Warren says that, for Idol, it was just a term overheard at a party and felt an affinity with.
— R. T. Smith