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.
Continuing the theme of persistent pop culture trends established by last week blog’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. 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 original’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. 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, “He is driven by a pursuit for justice, but it’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.” Philosopher John Gray, in a fascinating piece for the BBC, describes Holmes as “a servant of reason” who is also “a romantic hero ready to defy authority in order to stand by his sense of morality.”
But perhaps even more than his anti-authoritarian leanings, what truly defines Holmes in the mind of the public is his rationalism. Paradoxically, Holmes’s intelligence both gives him a timeless appeal and marks him as a creature of the Victorian era. Bear with me as I turn briefly to a book not about Sherlock Holmes: Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent, published in 1907 but set in 1886. The events of that narrative are set off when the subversive Mr. Vladmir orders his agent provocateur Mr. Verloc to attack the Greenwich Observatory. 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 learning—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. 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 era’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. While the horrors and tragedies of the last century have somewhat taken the shine off of reason’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 character’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. 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. Take Arthur out of Camelot or try to set Robin Hood in the twentieth century and it just won’t work. You have removed a vital part of what made it an Arthurian story or a tale about Robin Hood. 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 Holmes’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 I’m just going to touch works from the last few years. The Holmes-related media of the twenty-first century have each reflected contemporary trends in their own ways. 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 Holmes’s analytical prowess into the superpower of pinpointing his opponents weaknesses during the many brawls into which this Sherlock blunders.
The BBC’s excellent Sherlock is more true to the heart of the character, though thanks to changing laws regarding smoking in public, Benedict Cumberbatch’s Holmes has to slap on nicotine patches rather than smoke a pipe. 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. Interestingly, whereas Holmes is essentially asexual in the original stories, both Downey’s and Cumberbatch’s respective Sherlocks both nurse explicitly romantic interests in Irene Adler. (On some level, it makes sense that a Victorian audience would be more comfortable with an asexual hero than contemporary viewers.) The CBS show Elementary takes the prize for the most out-there treatment of Adler, however. 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 Holmes’s arch-nemesis. Even before this reveal, Elementary made waves by casting Lucy Liu as Dr. Joan Watson. Given the paucity of important female characters in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s original stories, I feel that we now have a Sherlock Holmes television show in which both one of the leads and the show’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. I have not even touched on other noteworthy Holmes-related works, like Michael Chabon’s The Final Solution, or the Basil Rathbone movies that defined Holmes for a generation. What’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? Do you have a favorite Holmes story? How about a favorite parody of the sleuth? Have you encountered any particularly fascinating permutations of the Holmesian mythos?
Halloween is fast approaching, and with it all of our favorite standby nightmares; ghosts, werewolves, witches, vampires, and zombies lurk around the corner, waiting to thrill us with their wickedness. When I was little, I used to regard Halloween with a mixture of apprehension and excitement− apprehension for the inevitable ghost stories that would keep me up at night, and excitement for the candy I could binge eat to pass the sleepless hours. Halloween holds less anticipation for me now. This may be partially because of my increased cynicism and decreased sweet tooth, but is also due in no small part to the fact that those familiar Halloween monsters no longer belong solely to that one October night.
Of course, America has had a long love affair with monsters, and I do not mean to imply that we have only just discovered a penchant for the macabre. But our relationship with the creatures that go bump in the night seems to have developed beyond what it once was. The horror stories of the past have often been limited by their genre. Elvira’s Movie Macabre may have had its fans, but the fact cannot be avoided that it was considered gimmicky and enjoyed only a niche audience.
Blockbusters like the Twilight franchise and 2009’s horror-comedy film Zombieland have proven that monster movies can be more commercially successful than ever before. Furthermore, Twilight’s choice to portray a vampire as its dreamy love interest indicates a new attitude toward the old, recognizable ghouls. Novel-turned-Hollywood film Warm Bodies goes so far as to cast a rotting zombie as its romantic protagonist. It’s almost as if our childhood nightmares are the new “cool kids”.
Besides garnering the commercial success that goes hand in hand with their new popularity, monsters are also breaking through previously strict barriers of genre, attaining in some cases critical acclaim; television shows such as The Walking Dead and American Horror Story, which can only be classified as monster stories, have received many accolades, including nominations for various Golden Globe Awards. Even more remarkable than this is the appearance of well-regarded and literarily relevant works of fiction dealing with the monstrous and fantastical.
We have been discussing this trend in my 21st Century North American Fiction class, and recently read an article by Joe Fassler published in The Atlantic, entitled “How Zombies and Superheroes Conquered Highbrow Fiction”. In it, Fassler writes:
Discounting a few notable (and unclassifiable) isoladoes like Toni Morrison, Margaret Atwood, and Don Delillo, our literature unfolded in diners, standard issue automobiles, and the living room […] But now, only eleven years into a new century, American literary culture has undergone a sea change. A group of high-profile literary writers have fled what we call “real-life”− and their numbers are growing. Literature shelves now commonly feature Halloween party staples: Zombies, werewolves, and vampires […]
Fassler’s chosen example of this change in American literature is Colson Whitehead’s Zone One, a novel following a survivor of the zombie apocalypse as he and his fellow humans attempt to rebuild. The novel’s status as a piece of literature rather than a piece of valueless entertainment is indicative of our shift in attitude toward monsters.
Fassler seems to believe that our new fondness for “Halloween party staples” is not merely a fad, but promises to be a lasting trend in New American Fiction. Undoubtedly, their popularity has already lasted longer than expected. This leads us to wonder why monsters and their like found their way into the limelight in the first place. What is it about them that fascinates and attracts us?
Perhaps it is has something to do with Fassler’s assertion that literary writers are rejecting “real-life” in favor of the fantastic. Doing so certainly leaves them the possibility of representing the issues they deal with in a more metaphorical way. For example, in his collection entitled Thinking Dead: What the Zombie Apocalypse Means, Murali Balaji compiled a series of essays speculating on the reason for our obsession with zombies. His introduction says of zombie apocalypses:
There are social and psychological ramifications as well, particularly as they relate to our fear of Others, insecurities over self-reflection and the deep-seated paranoia over the possibility of an apocalyptic event.
According to Balaji and many of his essayists, the zombie apocalypse becomes something of a metaphor, representing anything from the fright of the destruction of the traditional American family, to tensions felt toward and by the gay community, to fear of the usefulness of a white-collar workforce in the face of economic turmoil. Some of these connections may be a little tenuous, but the general message remains that one can use the fantastic to more creatively address otherwise difficult themes. At the end of his “How Zombies…” article, Fassler articulates a series of points, collected with the help of several fantasy writers, detailing some reasons why what he calls “genre fiction” has gained popularity in recent years. They are as follows:
Michael Chabon, in the introduction to his essay collection, Maps and Legends, argues that the fantastic−monsters, magic and science fiction− is the direction in which American fiction must head. He proffers that this new writing, “haunts the boundary lines, the margins, the secret shelves between the sections in the bookstore. And that is where, if it wants to renew itself in the way the novel has done so often in its long history, the short story must, inevitably go”.
What do you think? What is the reason for our newfound fondness of the fantastic and morbid? Will it really last, or has the monster (and particularly the zombie) fad already played itself out? Is Chabon correct about the next phase of American Literature?
If you ever want to provoke an English major to physical violence, express your opinion that an adaptation (whether in filmed or stage form) of a book is equal or even superior to the literary source material. For most lovers of the written word, it is heresy to suggest that the intellectual meat of a work of fiction can do anything but suffer in the process of translation to another medium.
To some extent, this view is understandable. In the majority of cases, one is simply able to pack more meaning into a narrative conveyed in written form, where the length of the work is determined by the content, as opposed to a movie or play that must keep its run-time below certain parameters. But I fear that we lovers of literature may be too eager to dismiss all adaptations. In a few rare cases, new adaptations of existing works have allowed the translators to use the original source material to explore new and artistically exciting themes and ideas.
Last May in London, I had the opportunity to see the Playhouse Theatre’s production of George Orwell’s 1984. The Playhouse Theatre’s adaptation by and large keeps the dialogue and plot intact, but they have added in a few choice elements that I found to be phenomenally intelligent additions. My favorite part ended up being the play’s closing scene, which is not found in Orwell’s original but is entirely the work of the playwrights. After the Party finally breaks Winston’s spirit, the narrative jumps forward a hundred years to show a group of people discussing how Big Brother fell after Winston’s death. The audience begins to think that maybe this play will end happily until one of the women wonders, “But, I mean, wouldn’t they. . . If the Party. . . How do we know the Party fell? Wouldn’t it be in their interest to just structure the world in such a way that we believe that they were no longer. . .” Just then, a child comes up to her, singing “The Bells of St. Clemens” (a symbol of impending doom in both the book and the play) and leads the woman off-stage. It is a thought-provoking and phenomenally powerful way to end the play, and in my opinion it is just as intelligent and artistic as anything Orwell wrote. By adding this scene, the playwrights touch on themes that the book does not. They suggest that overt violence is not the only kind of oppression and offer a more nuanced reflection that is even more applicable to today’s post-PATRIOT world than Orwell’s original.
The best other example I can recall of an adaptation substantially adding to a work in a way that enhances the final product is Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood, his masterful reimagining of Macbeth. In Throne of Blood, Kurosawa moves the narrative from Scotland to medieval Japan. Even beyond the setting change, Kurosawa makes a few choice alterations to the base story that allow the famed director to explore themes that are different from those in the original Macbeth, but that carry just as much intellectual weight as those in the Bard’s best work. Several of the changes that Kurosawa makes serve to convey the director’s own pessimism about authority figures and the inescapable cycle of violence in which rulers are eternally trapped.
Whereas Shakespeare presents Macbeth and his cruelty as the exception rather than the rule, Kurosawa goes out of his way to stress that the brutal warlord Washizu, his Macbeth stand-in, is far from unique among would-be sovereigns. In the Scottish play, Macbeth’s predecessor and eventual victim Duncan is a blameless ruler who “hath borne his faculties so meek, hath been/ so clear in his great office, that his virtues/ Will plead like angels, trumpet-tongued, against/ The deep damnation of his taking-off” (1.7.17-19). In Throne of Blood, Kurosawa indicates that Washizu’s ruler, the Great Lord Tsuzuki, had come to power himself by murdering his own predecessor, thus making him guilty of the same crime as Washizu. This detail may seem small but carries significant moral ramifications. By placing Washizu’s treachery in a context where usurpation is the norm, Kurosawa expands the narrative’s focus from simply being the tale of one man’s madness into exploring the violence that rulers utilize to gain and maintain power.
The Bard’s Macbeth ends relatively happily, with the titular villain being slain by Macduff. In contrast, Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood climaxes with the murder of Washizu by his own archers, and closes with a scene of enemy troops approaching the castle as a thick fog falls—and when the cloud lifts, the entire castle is gone and an unseen chorus wails, “Look upon the ruins/ Of the castle of delusion.” Shakespeare’s play ends with the restoration of the rightful order and the proper monarch, but Kurosawa does not seem to believe that the cycle of violence and treachery is escapable through any means but the release of death and total desolation.
I won’t go so far as to declare that any version, either original or adaptation, of 1984 or Macbeth is the superior work of art, but I do wonder if we are doing ourselves a disservice by taking it for granted that an adaptation must be an inferior product. Rather, we should acknowledge that the changes that often come with the adaptation of a literary work into another medium are not necessarily a bad thing, but can, in the hands of capable artists, be an opportunity to take the story into new intellectual terrain.