Monday, November 10, 2014

A WWII Veteran Reflects on a Path Not Taken

For Veterans Day, the Baltimore Sun shares today the story that East Baltimore resident Frank DiCara told me about his experience during World War II and coming back.
    Born into a family of six in the hardscrabble Highlandtown neighborhood, DiCara faced a tough road: By 1944 his three older brothers had all been drafted into the service, and he got his own draft notice just before Christmas that year. He was shipped off to the Philippines with all the other 18-year-old boys.
    After surviving the war's ordeal, he faced more trials coming home. But a chance encounter changed his story and his life. What if he had missed that sidewalk meeting? he wonders. Thanks to the Sun for running the piece.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Aboard the Doomed Macedonian Again

Last weekend marked the anniversary of one of the first encounters in the War of 1812, the battle between the U.S.S. United States and H.M.S. Macedonian. In researching our National Geographic book, Mark and I found some stories that surprised us, and one involved the wager of a beaver hat and lightning striking twice.
    Stephen Decatur was commander of the Navy Yard in Norfolk, Virginia, before the war. There he would invite his British counterparts in port over for dinner. In January 1812 one of his guests was Captain John Carden, who commanded the H.M.S. Macedonian. That night over dinner, Decatur bet Carden a fine beaver hat that his ship, the United States, could best the Macedonian one-on-one. It was almost a joke: Decatur’s ship was nicknamed “the Old Wagon,” while the Macedonian, with 38 guns, was new and nimble.
    They laughed, toasted and parted that night, expecting nothing to come of it.
    Within months, everything had changed. That fall when Decatur, after crossing the Atlantic, bore down on a British ship, the other ship turned out to be none other than the Macedonian.
The Macedonian and the United States
    It was Sunday, October 25. West of the Canary Islands. Confident in the Macedonian’s speed, Carden sailed straight at his opponent. And indeed, she sped past the United States' first shot. But Decatur used his position and the longer range of the U.S. guns (24-pounders compared to the British 18-pounders) to stay out of cannon range and dismast the Macedonian. Then he swooped in to finish the job.
    At that point we shift perspective to the British ship, where a boy named Samuel Leech, a powder monkey, quickly saw how brutal a sea battle could be. When the Macedonian’s crew had left Portsmouth heading for the Mediterranean, they didn’t even know that Britain was at war with the U.S. Suddenly they were in battle. My blog for NY Bound Books sometime ago takes up Leech’s tale.
    It’s a tale that takes a young man through war to another land, another life, and a sudden jarring return to his old ship during a visit to New York, like a bad flashback. Rattled and moved, Leech was inspired to write his life story, Thirty Years from Home. His book came out in the 1840s and became a surprise bestseller. It still offers a remarkable firsthand glimpse from that time of life and death and second chances.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Baltimore Short Fiction

Happy to have my review of two fine Baltimore writers in the Washington Independent Review of Books. Rafael Alvarez and Clarinda Harriss share a fascination with their city’s residents, how people use language, and the random social encounters that cut across ethnicity and class. It’s fun to imagine the two authors, who both have new short story collections out, meeting for drinks and hashing things out in a Baltimore bar (though probably not one in the Inner Harbor).

Read the review on the Review's website.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Empires of the Silk Road

My new guest post on National Geographic's Intelligent Travel blog is about my trip to Kyrgyzstan, and stories of empires and herders that met in Central Asia along the Silk Road. It was a wild trip through the mountains - I hope you enjoy the read!
Please let me know what you think and post a comment on the Nat Geo site or here.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

From the Vault for National Doughnut Day: The Story of Doughnuts

To mark Natonal Doughnut Day on June 6, thousands will trot to their neighborhood doughnut or donut shop for free samples. Here we mark it by revisiting my Smithsonian article on the humble doughnut's sprawling history, from the Dutch, Russian immigrants and Hollywood idols who played a part.
    In the last few months I've been gratified to hear from more writers and readers who have enjoyed it and even been inspired by the story. Enjoy the day.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Inquiring Minds in the Library of Congress

My thanks to Erin Allen and the staff at the Library of Congress for featuring this Q&A about the Federal Writers' Project and the event at the Library showcasing the WPA writers' legacy in oral history with the 75th anniversary of the publication of These Are Our Lives, which first appeared in May 1939.
    The event features Ann Banks, author of First-Person America (now available on Kindle), Virginia Millington from StoryCorps, and actors John Stange and Eternanda Fudge, courtesy of DC's Theatre Lab, evoking the WPA life histories from These Are Our Lives. Please read and let us know what you think. And watch for the webcast of the May 15 event at the Library of Congress, coming soon. Details here.

Friday, April 25, 2014

When Oral History Changed Storytelling

Every week on NPR you might hear pieces from StoryCorps. Nearly as often you might catch firsthand glimpses of history in "oral histories" without knowing what that term means. The Library of Congress connects some of these dots with an event on May 15 in its "Beyond the Book" series. The event marks the 75th anniversary of These Are Our Lives, a ground-breaking collection of life histories, what would today be called oral histories, produced by the government but intended to reflect the most individual elements of American life, from some of its most unsung citizens.
   While researching my book on the Federal Writers’ Project, I learned of the nationwide effort to gather these histories (These Are Our Lives contains stories from the South but there are thousands more) from Ann Banks, author of First-Person America. Her book delivers more selections from that rich oral history material gathered by the Project, which she found gathering dust in the Library of Congress 40 years ago.

    Banks was suggested to me by one of the Project’s famous survivors, Studs Terkel, who championed oral history in many forms – from radio interview to his own books (which sometimes morphed into other forms like the musical Working) -- as a way to get history from real people.
    In 1939 Terkel was working in the Project’s radio division, where he researched and wrote profiles for a weekly one-hour broadcast. He wasn’t doing oral history, as he admitted; his job was to write scripts about artists like Daumier, Van Gogh, Eakins, and George Bellows. But he absorbed the Project’s ethos of getting people’s stories to the public. Sometimes Terkel slipped out back with Nelson Algren, one of the life history interviewers, to a nearby bowling alley.
    Sam Ross, who worked with Terkel in the radio division but also conducted life history interviews, summed up the atmosphere later: “Everybody felt alive,” Ross said. “We were linked to the community.”
Nelson Algren
    Ross, a former college athlete, knew his way around Chicago’s nightclubs - a skill that earned him the job of escorting Benjamin Botkin, the Project’s national folklore director and a jazz fan, around clubs on the city’s South Side during his visit to Chicago. Botkin was thrilled to hear such wonderful music, and later gave Ross the task of interviewing the older Chicago jazzmen for their life stories. They included Muggsy Spanier, Richard Voynow (who had managed the legendary Bix Beiderbecke) and clarinetist Bud Jacobson. Ross would go listen to the musicians play and talk with them afterward.
    Through the life stories he gathered came a little-known picture of how segregation affected musicians. Despite the rules, styles crossed the color line and white musicians learned from African American musicians like Coleman Hawkins. “Hawkins was the guy,” Jacobson said. “Up till then nobody knew what to do with the sax in the orchestra.”
    In the 1920s, jazz musicians had to abide racial segregation enforced by union rules. Some, like Spanier, learned by getting around those rules. Spanier started as a teenager on drums and switched to cornet, he told Ross, inspired by Joe "King" Oliver, who let a young Spanier sit in with his band. “That was unheard of in those days up North here, a white person playing with Negroes,” Spanier said. “I learned how to play from listening to Joe Oliver…”
    In his Chicago interviews, Ross documented a firsthand history of jazz while it was still young, and felt lucky for the chance to hone his storytelling skills at the same time. He later wrote scripts in Hollywood. “I learned my dramatic craft there,” he told Banks for First-Person America.
    Notes from a 1939 staff meeting of the Chicago’s folklore group give us a glimpse into how what we now call oral history was changing even then. Botkin had people like them gathering thousands of life histories across the country, and in his way was radically taking folklore out of the halls of academia. As Chicago folklore supervisor, Nelson Algren announced a new tack in collecting industrial folklore, saying that headquarters was planning a volume of urban stories along the lines of the just-published These Are Our Lives. Algren was excited by a new style of documenting urban stories that allowed for even more direct quotations, more direct expression of character from the people themselves. He held up a recent example that Ross read aloud. The examples “reveal a new way of writing,” Algren said, “which we'll attempt here.”
    They debated the role of the interviewer, and whether the aim should be a narrative that readers find engaging, or one driven by the interviewee, which might uncover a potentially “truer” and more surprising story than the interviewer could anticipate.
Margaret Walker
    Algren, who would later win the first National Book Award for a novel loaded with Chicago voice, was clear about his preference: “Sometime if you just let them ramble, they might say more than if they feel you've got an idea” about what you want to hear.
    Margaret Walker agreed: “If they have [your] one thing in their mind,” she said, “they'll just go back to it and keep repeating it.” Walker, too, would later hone her storytelling based on what she learned there. The focus was taking contemporary folklore into modern storytelling, a long way from the traditional tall tale prized by academic folklorists of the time.
    At the Library of Congress event on May 15, Banks and Virginia Millington from StoryCorps will help put these innovations in storytelling from 75 years ago in the context of stories we hear today. Please come join us. It's free!

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Ralph Ellison and Telling Stories of Invisibility

This month we marked the Ralph Ellison centennial, celebrating the author of Invisible Man, which won the National Book Award in 1953.
    Although he became famous as a writer, as a young man Ellison didn’t know that writing would be his path. Growing up in segregated Oklahoma City, he idolized Duke Ellington and planned to become a musician. Ellison studied music at Tuskegee, but before he graduated his family finances crunched and there was no longer enough to pay tuition. Instead he rode the rails north to New York City, where he met Richard Wright.
    When he was 23, Ellison had to rush to Ohio where his mother was dying. “I lost my mother the day after I arrived,” he wrote to Wright. “This is real, and the most final thing I’ve ever encountered.”
    By the spring of 1939, Ellison was back in the city with a job documenting life histories for the Federal Writers’ Project. As Soul of a People recounts, he approached people on the streets and asked them about their lives.
    Ellison was gaining a sense of African American history as he interviewed Harlem residents for the WPA folklore division. He talked with Pullman porters, unemployed truck drivers, musicians, and children. One day at the corner of 135th Street and Lenox, he met a gifted storyteller from South Carolina named Leo Gurley, who told a story about the only man in that town who could escape the oppression of Jim Crow – by becoming invisible.
    “He was one sucker who didn't give a damn about the crackers,” Gurley said of the man (“I done forgot his real name”) who used a spell to make himself invisible and take what he needed to survive.
    Other days, Ellison interviewed a drummer about his gigs and audiences, or an older man about why he came to New York. These stories formed a mosaic of a migration larger than anyone had previously imagined.
    Nationwide the life history interviews documented the lives of ordinary Americans and shared their voices in the public domain on a scale that had never been seen before.
    This spring marks the 75th anniversary of a group of those life histories gathered by the Writers’ Project. Titled These Are Our Lives, the book assembled stories gathered in the South from people who were black and white, poor and better off, rural and urban. The editor W.T. Couch presented the stories as “written from the standpoint of the individual.” There’s room to dispute that – WPA interviewers often started from a list of set questions, managed the writing, with the final text edited by Couch. Yet the effort marked a step toward people telling their own stories in their own words.
    On another channel – or another frequency – the voices of life history interviewees percolated through American literature and arts for decades, through talents like Ellison. Historian Jerrold Hirsch notes that the closing of Invisible Man echoes with Ellison’s awareness of that collaboration: “Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?"
    On May 15 we will celebrate life histories and These Are Our Lives with an event at the Library of Congress, where the WPA life history manuscripts are collected along with the archive of a counterpart today, StoryCorps. I look forward to that, bringing together those 1939 voices and the storytelling that they inspired. If you're near D.C., mark your calendar and come.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Harry Partch and the Music of the Rails

The Chromelodeon

Early in 1939 Harry Partch, the hobo son of missionaries, arrived in California and signed on to the California Writers’ Project for a second time.
    As a writer he had a distinctive style and an eye for detail, but even more, he had music. Partch the composer would become one of the most distinctive voices in modern music. At the time, the ancient Chinese poet Li Po inspired him to take a viola and adapt it to a new microtonal scale.
    Partch would go on to adapt and invent instruments like the Chromelodeon and the Boo II that still inspire performers today.
    For surviving, though, he turned to writing for the WPA. Two years before, he had worked on the Writers’ Project in California, editing and writing until he grew restless to move again. “Life is too precious to spend it with important people,” he said later in life. He found hoboes and the people he met on the road more open-minded.
The Boo II
The Boo II
    “The bums’ courage in remaining stoically humorous in the face of even the gravest misfortune was a value Partch treasured,” noted his biographer Bob Gilmore. The composer’s second stint with the WPA was more agreeable, it seemed. At least he stayed with it longer -- through the publication of the WPA Guide to California that spring and on through the end of the year. Then it was back on the rails, later immortalized in U.S. Highball.
    Not long ago my old English professor, J. Gill Holland, a polymath who has translated Li Po and other Chinese poets, was delighted to find this video of Partch’s musical adaptation, '17 Lyrics of Li Po.'
    Holland has published a short piece about his own use of Li Po’s quatrains in creative writing classes in the online journal Enter Text, where he notes that “class presentation of lovely poems like these is always full of amazement and delight, and the notion of a dialogue with past poets is true to Chinese literary tradition.”
    Just last month, that Li Po/Partch combination inspired songs in The Third Life of King Lear, performed in Brooklyn. The dialogues continue.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Hungry Heart

This winter brings Broadway and Hollywood versions of strong 1920s women up against hard choices in a hard world: Machinal on Broadway and The Immigrant, which sparked huge enthusiasm at Cannes. Anzia Yezierska lived those choices, growing up on the Lower East Side and making her way from Old World tradition to Hollywood modernity. My guest post on Ken Ackerman’s Viral History explores Yezierska’s experience in light of new productions. Thanks to Ken Ackerman for that opportunity.
    See also Part 2, about Yezierska's legacy for those who came after, including the late Grace Paley and Amy Bloom, author of Away and other wonderful books.