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.
While perusing my late uncleâ€™s poetry collection Anniversary Songs, I read the words that comforted him during his final years, words that he wrote, no less. While many of James Wronoskiâ€™s poems are written for his wife in an attempt to eternalize his love for her, the poet directly addresses his cancer in others. Sometimes, he even addresses them both.
Iâ€™ve recognized this in other works, that the words Iâ€™m reading are a way of coping with some sort of ailment, be it physical or emotional. Iâ€™ve found it in poetry, memoir, and even fiction. The writersâ€™ words heal. Thereâ€™s an intimacy in allowing othersâ€”strangersâ€”to read these emotionally charged words, and it moves me every time.
Catharsis: â€œThe purification of emotions by vicarious experience, esp. through drama.â€ Aristotle originally used this word in his work on dramatic theory titled Poetics. He used catharsis as a metaphor for how tragedy affects the spectator. Works by certain authors, poets, and playwrights succeed in evoking sympathy in the reader or viewer. Perhaps this explains why booksâ€”be it fiction or nonâ€”poems, plays, and arguably most often movies, can bring tears to audience membersâ€™ eyes. By inducing fear, sorrow, and pain, the readers or viewers can purge these excessive emotionsand are cleansed.
But what about the writer? What readers possess is the work in its finished stage. They donâ€™t see it from proposal to publication like the writer does. They donâ€™t have access to the drafts, rewrites, edits, and scraps. But that process is as important to the writer as the final product.
Mimesis: â€œImitation; spec. the representation or imitation of the real world in (a work of) art, literature, etc.â€ Writers often recreate their past experiences through words. They donâ€™t simply purge their emotions, but rather, they acknowledge them. Bringing these events back to life allows some writers to cope.
In the late 1800s, psychoanalyst Josef Breuer developed a psychological treatment for individuals who suffer from hysteria. Breuerâ€™s patients, while under hypnosis, recalled traumatic experiences to evoke emotions that may have been suppressed or forgotten after the trauma. By doing so, their hysteric symptoms dissipated. And Iâ€™m under the impression that authors accomplish this completely consciously, intentionally, successfully, and throughout each and every stage of the writing process.
While Aristotle considers how tragedy affects the spectator, he does not address how, or if, tragedy affects the performer. I have found, while reading certain memoirs, poetry collections, and even novels, that writers often write for both themselves and their reader, and it is worth considering this relationship, especially when the writer invites the reader into a private and personal experience.
Reading Autobiography, a guide written by Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson, references â€œscriptotherapy,â€ a term coined by Suzette Henke in her book Shattered Subjects. Smith and Watson define this word as a response â€œto signify the process of speaking or writing about trauma in order to find words to give voice to previously repressed memories.â€ They identify it as an important method to consider when interpreting autobiographical texts, explicitly or not.
Last spring for Shenandoah I recommended Natalie Diazâ€™s When My Brother Was an Aztec. In the post, I discuss how Diazâ€™s poetry is admittedly autobiographical, and the reader can infer from her jarring, if not graphic, entries that writing this collection provided a means of coping for Diaz. This is not to say her writing cured her of her post-colonial traumatic stress, but it at least remedied some wounds.
Likewise, I believe my uncleâ€™s poetry accomplished a similar goal. He wrote in the late stages of cancer and his poems allowed him to confront his disease head-on. One of his poems in particular addresses his cancer directly.
By acknowledging their respective ailmentsâ€”one physical, one emotionalâ€”both poets are able to use the power of writing for good.
But this mechanism is not exclusive to poets. Memoirists also find comfort in exploiting their troubled pasts. Mary Karrâ€™s The Liarsâ€™ Club retells her dysfunctional childhood with an alcoholic, and sometimes pyromaniac, mother and an occasionally absent father.
It even applies to fiction. Marilynne Robinsonâ€™s epistolary novel Gilead features a dying narrator, Reverend John Ames, who writes letters to his young son. Rev. Ames laments that his son will grow up fatherless, and he attempts to quell this regret through these letters. He writes with the intention of creating a legacy for his sonâ€”an all-inclusive genealogy and stories about his own fatherâ€”but ends up providing himself with closure.
Wronoski, Diaz, Karr, and Robinsonâ€™s works were each part of a long and intensive process that no doubt featured countless edits, rewrites, and scraps that each offered another kind of satisfaction. Discovering the perfect details, no matter the form, can itself be cathartic, perhaps even more then the purgative nature of spilling emotions onto a first draft.
These examples demonstrate why writers write, and even why readers read, why painters paint or musicians compose. The list is unexhausted on both accounts; the medium does not change or dictate the cathartic or mimetic nature of art. Artists can findâ€”via an accumulation of words, of paint, or notesâ€”the perfect confines for their unique experiences.
*Catharsis and Mimesis as defined by OED.
My English capstone class focuses on the study of memoir. Our class, comprised of one professor and six students, gathers each week around a conference room table to discuss and to analyze the practice of self-writing. Our studies cover an array of works, ranging from fiction to personal essays to memoirs. Weâ€™ve read Marilynne Robinsonâ€™s fiction novel Gilead, Joan Didionâ€™s personal essay In Bed, and Mary Karrâ€™s memoir The Liarsâ€™ Club. Supplementary to reading major works, our professor throws in theoretical texts that examine the practice of writing memoir, the multitude of creative choices involved and the tools needed to create a successful piece. The narrating â€œIâ€ vs. the narrated â€œI.â€ The incorporation of historical episodes. The methods of humor, spirituality, reflection. And the ever-popular â€œshow donâ€™t tell.â€ We read, we analyze, we discuss. We gather the information and the skills weâ€™ve collected from our studies to create our own pieces of self-writing. At the end of the term, we will culminate our capstone class and our careers as English majors with our own memoirs.
Iâ€™ve studied memoir and creative non-fiction in a multitude of English classes throughout my college career. I struggle with my own self-writing, specifically with selecting a piece of my memory to analyze or an episode of my life to portray to my audience. Iâ€™m still trying to find my groove with the practice and to discover my unique voice. But I think thatâ€™s why Iâ€™m so drawn to reading memoir and to the work itself. Iâ€™m struck by the art of self-writing and the way writers creatively craft and portray episodes of their lives. I admire David Sedarisâ€™ self-deprecating humor. I respect Joan Didionâ€™s journalistic approach to recounting her personal memories. Right now, I am particularly enthralled with Mary Karrâ€™s writing after studying The Liarsâ€™ Club in my English class. Sheâ€™s a creative genius who carefully depicts incidents of her turbulent childhood with vivid details and captivating descriptions. She takes on a childâ€™s point of view to portray the turmoil of her youth, presenting the darkest of moments with poignant clarity and without vilifying any particular character.
My capstone class studies great works of memoirs whose authors shine brightly in the world of their genre. However, another side to the worlds of memoir and autobiography is emerging. With the rise of popular culture comes the rise of a new wave of memoir, where individuals with present-oriented stories publish books about themselves. These individuals write autobiographies or memoirs for an immediate audience by pinpointing a story that sells, that grabs the publicâ€™s attention, that exposes scandal or hardship, and mass produces the book across the country. First came the celebrities, publishing books about their lives in Hollywood and rise to fame, such as Tina Feyâ€™s Bossy Pants. Next came musicians, athletes, politicians, reality television stars, etc. Now regular Americans who believe they have a compelling story to tell are publishing memoirs about their life
struggles and overcoming hardships. Donâ€™t get me wrongâ€”many of these books are interesting, insightful, and entertaining. But the books contain transient subject matter and poor technical writing skills. These new memoirs and autobiographies top Amazonâ€™s bestseller list, which drives the booksâ€™ popularity up even further because readers go to theÂ list to select a read that fellow Americans are reading as well. The books on the list are entertaining and lack the threatening nature of more powerful, well-written books, such as Mark Twainâ€™s autobiography. I, personally, would select Amy Poehlerâ€™s new autobiography Yes, Please over Ulysses S. Grantâ€™s memoir as a summer beach read. But if I wanted a compelling story told through exquisite prose, I would choose to read Grant. The pop-culture oriented subjects of todayâ€™s memoirs and autobiographies entertain and enthrall us, but after a few years they are forgotten and left to collect dust on our bookshelves, while Ulysses S. Grantâ€™s memoir withstands the test of time and continues to be read over one hundred years after his death.
The rise of transitory memoirs and autobiographies urges me to wonder what will happen to memoirs from Mary Karr or Joan Didion, the well-written memoirs that carry weight and hold substance in the literary world, over time. Books such as Life is Not a Reality Show: Keeping it Real with the Housewife Who Does it All by reality television star Kyle Richards and Kardashian Konfidential by the Kardashian sisters are on bookstands and best-seller list. The pop culture memoirs delve into the superficial lives of reality television stars and grasp the publicâ€™s attention. The present-oriented autobiographies feature an entertaining story, but the fundamental elements of the writing itself are subpar and poorly crafted. The temporal works of our societyâ€™s current politicians, athletes, and celebrities fail to incorporate general wisdom or relatable life stories that establish a direct connection with the audience and contextualize the subject matter so much that in a few years, the works may become obsolete in the eyes of the American public. A variety of factors contribute to a bookâ€™s longevity and success, just as the case with songs, fashions, and even sports. Predicting what will achieve longevity in our society is almost impossible. Perhaps current sensations do indeed contain the gravity and wit to captivate the audienceâ€™s attention throughout time. While I prefer the memoirs of Mary Karr, Joan Didion, and the likes, I wonder how the rise of popular culture will affect the literary memoir. Will the substantial works of Didion and Karr withstand the test of time, like the memoirs by Mark Twain and Ulysses S. Grant?
What do you think? Which type of memoir do you prefer? Will the memoir greats, like Mary Karr, become overshadowed by reality television stars? Where do you see the practice of self-writing in 10 years?
Continuing the theme of persistent pop culture trends established by last week blogâ€™s post, we turn now to a subject nominally more realistic than zombies and monsters: the impossibly perceptive detective whose greatest power seems to be his ability to remain relevant over a hundred years after first coming onto the scene. Â After only the briefest time out of the public eye, Sherlock Holmes has returned in full force, with not one but two big-budget television shows undertaking the task of bringing the Victorian detective into the twenty-first century world of DNA tests, forensic evidence, and relative societal intolerance for the originalâ€™s opium habit.
Many people have speculated on why Sherlock Holmes remains such a compelling figure, but none have yet provided a fully satisfactory answer. Â Les Klinger, editor of the Holmes-inspired anthology A Study in Sherlock, argues that his appeal comes from his status as an outsider, telling NPR, â€œHe is driven by a pursuit for justice, but itâ€™s his own brand of justice, and I think part of us yearns to be like that: strong, independent, above worries, above how we fit in with society.â€ Â Philosopher John Gray, in a fascinating piece for the BBC, describes Holmes as â€œa servant of reasonâ€ who is also â€œa romantic hero ready to defy authority in order to stand by his sense of morality.â€
But perhaps even more than his anti-authoritarian leanings, what truly defines Holmes in the mind of the public is his rationalism. Â Paradoxically, Holmesâ€™s intelligence both gives him a timeless appeal and marks him as a creature of the Victorian era. Â Bear with me as I turn briefly to a book not about Sherlock Holmes: Joseph Conradâ€™s The Secret Agent, published in 1907 but set in 1886. Â The events of that narrative are set off when the subversive Mr. Vladmir orders his agent provocateur Mr. Verloc to attack the Greenwich Observatory. Â When Verloc questions the merits of attacking an observatory rather than a more politically relevant target, Vladmir responds,
The sacrosanct fetish of to-day is science [ . . . ] Any imbecile that has got an income believes in that. He does not know why, but believes it matters somehow [ . . . ] They believe that in some mysterious way science is at the source of their material prosperity [ . . . ] The [bombing] must be against learningâ€”science [ . . . ] The attack must have the shocking senselessness of gratuitous blasphemy. (Conrad 21-22)
Though Mr. Vladmir is obviously a dubious individual morally, he does accurately describe the elevated position that science occupied in the Victorian psyche. Â The effects of the Enlightenment were in full swing, Darwinism was radically reshaping how humans viewed their relationship to the natural world, and reason was seen as the answer to all problems. Holmes is almost a personification of that eraâ€™s belief in the infallibility of reason: with nothing more than his eyes and his brain, he can solve any crime and set every injustice to right. Â While the horrors and tragedies of the last century have somewhat taken the shine off of reasonâ€™s power to satisfactorily explain the world, people still wants to believe that the world can be figured out through intelligence and attention to detail, and Holmes offers us a role model in that regard.
Another aspect of the characterâ€™s endurance that I feel is not properly appreciated is the simplicity of the elements needed to make an authentic-feeling Sherlock Holmes story. Because everything that is distinctive about the Holmes canon is internalized within its characters, his stories take better than most to contemporary updates. Â Compare, say, the mythos of Arthurian legend or of Robin Hood: so much of what makes those stories distinctive lies in their setting and time period. Â Take Arthur out of Camelot or try to set Robin Hood in the twentieth century and it just wonâ€™t work. Â You have removed a vital part of what made it an Arthurian story or a tale about Robin Hood. Â In contrast, the only elements one needs to retain to have an authentic Holmes story are a detective named Sherlock with a friend named Watson, who together solve mysteries with little more than their wits.
Of course, it is impossible to talk about Holmesâ€™s enduring popularity without acknowledging the ways in which the character has changed and adapted over the years. Entire books could be written exploring these changes, so Iâ€™m just going to touch works from the last few years. Â The Holmes-related media of the twenty-first century have each reflected contemporary trends in their own ways. Â The abominable 2009 film Sherlock Holmes and its sequel, A Game of Shadows, tried to capitalize on the superhero craze by casting Robert Downey, Jr. and turning Holmesâ€™s analytical prowess into the superpower of pinpointing his opponents weaknesses during the many brawls into which this Sherlock blunders.
The BBCâ€™s excellent Sherlock is more true to the heart of the character, though thanks to changing laws regarding smoking in public, Benedict Cumberbatchâ€™s Holmes has to slap on nicotine patches rather than smoke a pipe. Â Reflecting changing awareness of and attitudes toward homosexuality and gender, Sherlock makes a running gag out of Holmes and Watson being mistaken for a romantic couple. Â Interestingly, whereas Holmes is essentially asexual in the original stories, both Downeyâ€™s and Cumberbatchâ€™s respective Sherlocks both nurse explicitly romantic interests in Irene Adler. Â (On some level, it makes sense that a Victorian audience would be more comfortable with an asexual hero than contemporary viewers.) Â The CBS show Elementary takes the prize for the most out-there treatment of Adler, however. Â Spoilers ahead: in Elementary, Adler and Holmes are former lovers, but in this adaptation, Adler is also Jamie Moriarty, and she is eventually revealed as Holmesâ€™s arch-nemesis. Â Even before this reveal, Elementary made waves by casting Lucy Liu as Dr. Joan Watson. Â Given the paucity of important female characters in Sir Arthur Conan Doyleâ€™s original stories, I feel that we now have a Sherlock Holmes television show in which both one of the leads and the showâ€™s greatest villain are women says a great deal.
No blog post can possibly do justice to the questions of why Sherlock Holmes has proven so enduring or how later adaptations reflect their time periods. Â I have not even touched on other noteworthy Holmes-related works, like Michael Chabonâ€™s The Final Solution, or the Basil Rathbone movies that defined Holmes for a generation. Â Whatâ€™s clear, though, is that the sleuth is here to stay. As we get ever farther away in time from the Victorian world that gave birth to Holmes, I for one will be watching with interest to see what contemporary and future artists do to keep Holmes relevant to the modern world even as the modern world rapidly changes.
What do you think, fellow readers? Â Do you have a favorite Holmes story? Â How about a favorite parody of the sleuth? Â Have you encountered any particularly fascinating permutations of the Holmesian mythos?