Friday, May 21, 2010
At a recent poetry reading I attended near Wilmington, two poets who read during the open reading part of the event, as they often do, prefaced their reading with a few remarks. One poet, in his remarks, mentioned an estate which is now a park just north of Wilmington called Rockwood. Rockwood is the former home of one of Wilmington's early founders, William Shipley. There still stands in proximity of the Rockwood mansion a coach house. In that coach house it is reported that the early 20th century Delaware novelist John Biggs, Jr. wrote one or both of his novels, Demigods and Seven Days Whipping. It has also been reported that John P. Marquand, the only novelist born in Delaware to have earned a Pulitzer, lived in the same coach house for a spell. That report would have been a nice addition to remarks made about Rockwood, which may have filled in some of those empty places in our knowledge of the local literary community that preceded us.
At the same poetry reading event, another poet in her preparatory remarks mentioned Slaughter Beach in Sussex County. She reflected for a few moments about how the place got its name. Was it named after a person named Slaughter? Perhaps, if I recall correctly, she speculated whether a large number of animals were killed there. Actually, the reason for the name is far worse. It had been a location where local native Americans were massacred by European colonialist. The event is an important part of a story by John Loland, Delaware's first important literary author and poet. The story is "Ono-keo-co, or the Bandit of the Brandywine.” Of course, by the way we regard our past local writers and poets, the poet who read at this recent poetry reading can't be blamed for not knowing a work that's been out of print for nearly 150 years. But wouldn't it be nice to have access to these works from our predecessors? Wouldn't having a better idea of those on whose literary shoulders we stand in our local literary history enhance our appreciation of ourselves? Or maybe, and at this point probably, we and our work will be forgotten too. I'd like that. Or as the American novelist William S. Burroughs use to ask, in refrain, wouldn't you?
Monday, May 10, 2010
Guest Post from one of my students.
By Evan Acuña
They constituted an era filled with tension and tumult. Martin Luther King rose in the arms of the Civil Rights movement, only to later fall at the racist hands of hatred. A questionable battle sought to free the South Vietnamese people, but in the process created an America as divided as the foreign land it supposedly was trying to help. During the 1960’s the United States served as the home stadium for an active and principled youth that wasn’t afraid to get involved and make a scene. Social and political tension, along with the burgeoning Hippie movement, ensured that young, visionary voices were always ready to preach their messages.
Underpinning this youth revolution was a breadth of recent literature that reflected the restless ideals of young American marchers, demonstrators, and dreamers alike. There was Jack Kerouac’s On the Road of 1957; J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye of 1951; William S. Burroughs’s Naked Lunch of 1959. These books and others represented the pre-1960’s tension that erupted into what was arguably the most explosive decade of America’s history. They were vital components of the visionary zeitgeist that often guided the behaviors of American youth. Since the 1960’s, though, there has been a decline in the importance of this type of literature.
Surely revolutionary writers are still typing furiously for their causes, creating works for active, ardent audiences—but not nearly so many as before. Television, video games, and even the Internet, despite its myriad potential outlets for writers and thinkers, have all worked together to wrest influence from thought-provoking and challenging books. The role of popular literature as a visionary and influential medium has diminished since the 1960’s, its reduced importance stemming from the proliferation of electronic entertainment in American homes as well as from the increased corporate domination of the publishing industry.
From TV to the first video games to the advent of the Internet, electronic entertainment technologies have provided users with something that rich literature never could: instant gratification. This is an idea that children seem to grasp very well. A Game Boy, for instance, is more fun than a coloring book—‘nuff said. And children don’t just play with the Game Boy until they’re old enough to sit calmly and read a book—they play with the Game Boy until they’re old enough to use the Play Station, and then they use the Play Station until they get kicked out of the house or sent away to college (same thing, usually).
The effects of America’s quest for instant gratification have been clear. A quick look at any recent list of best-sellers affirms this. Sexy, sensationalistic thrillers top the charts with regularity. Works by John Grisham and Janet Evanovich typify the literary value found in today’s top sellers. Grisham and Evanocich are by no means poor writers, but their rapid fire releases of new full-length novels suggests that they might be more focused on quantity (read: money) than quality. The type of writing that Grisham and Evanovich create is only exacerbating the problem of literature’s decrease in visionary quality and influence. Grisham’s tales are thrilling to read on a dark night, Evanovich’s equally exciting in a dark bedroom. The two authors, and scores of copycats, are delivering the book world’s best interpretation of the instant gratification drug.
While an overbearing electronic entertainment industry has had a disconcerting impact on the modern bookstore’s inventory, television and its successors have not been the sole causes of current literature’s precarious position within the lives of Americans. The publishing industry has been continuously shifting since before the 1960’s, and the changing publishing climate has been another clear factor of literature’s diminished role in American society. Since before the 1960’s, publishing company ownership has steadily shifted from homegrown, family-run businesses to national conglomerates, and, in the process, the character of the industry has shifted as well.
Traditionally, many of the family-run publishing companies were descendant from old money. They had little need to publish books for profit, and so they often approached their trade more as a philanthropic act than as a business venture. As consolidation took over, though, publishing companies found themselves under the ownership of necessarily shrewd businesspeople. A new formula emerged to determine the worthiness of new books. According to this model, “publishable” now means bankable, marketable, sellable—and few publishers are left that can afford to care about quality. Couple this reality with a shrinking market for new books and it’s easy to see why hot sellers like Grisham and Evanovich have become darlings of the publishing industry.
To understand the falling significance of literature in American society is to understand many key differences between the 1960’s and today. Compare the riotous revolts against the war in Vietnam to the passive indifference with which most Americans regard the war in Iraq. Compare the inspiring words of Dylan singing for the greater good of humanity to the self-centered indulgence of Eminem. Fifty years after the rumblings began, the United States has lost a culture of visionary revolution to a wave of instant gratification. The displacement of inspirational literature by electronic entertainment and a publishing industry plagued by increasing corporate dominance have combined to create a national climate that is unsuitable to the mass appreciation of thought-provoking books, poetry, and prose—and without a population united by the common goals of contemporary literature, music, and other arts, the revolutionary spirit of the 1960’s is likely as burnt-out as many of its founders.
Tuesday, May 4, 2010
In addition to my interest in uncovering Delaware’s literary past, I’m also interested in uncovering the story of jazz produced by Wilmington’s past musicians since the 1930s. Many know about the contributions of the legendary jazz trumpet player Clifford Brown, but fewer know about the contributions made by those like Lem Winchester, Betty Roché, Gerald Price and others both living and dead. All of the aforementioned have made a mark, to some greater or lesser extent, on the American jazz idiom.
For me the history of Delaware’s literary past is compatible with the history of Wilmington’s jazz. There are a couple of notable parallels regarding the two: the first is the influence they’ve had upon their respective segments of American culture and the other is the lack of respect they’ve received from purveyors of our local cultural establishment. While I firmly believe that the shabby treatment of our literary past has more to do with its content, which tends to deliver some unwelcome truths, the lack of curiosity about our local jazz heritage has more to do with ignorance driven by a kind of covert racism.
Wilmington is a small city of less than 100,000 people. Unlike larger cities that can accommodate its population of poverty, like Philadelphia, Boston or New York, by also containing large middle class and upper class populations, Wilmington’s large population of poor and lower middle class people is too easy to see. A visit to Wilmington’s downtown Market Street any day of the week will demonstrate my point. After the sun goes down on any night, including Friday and Saturday nights, the city’s a virtual ghost town. People from surrounding suburbs are hesitant to come into Wilmington for many reasons. Cultural venues featuring the performance of jazz are sparse, and the long standing 2nd Saturday Poetry Reading, which had been located in the city for over 20 years, has moved out to a suburban location which is inaccessible by public transportation. In fact, local public transportation basically doesn’t exist Saturday night in Wilmington and is inadequate between the city and surrounding suburbs the remainder of the week, which has had the affect of fueling Wilmington’s inability to pull itself out of poverty.
If I may be permitted my artist’s prerogative to invoke some vision of the greater truth, I see inner cities like Wilmington as the convenient dumping ground for a byproduct of capitalist accumulation. That byproduct is poverty. I firmly believe that the amount of poverty is an indication of the amount of wealth accumulated, hoarded and hidden away by the capitalist class for the last 150 or more years. The abject poverty found in the Third World, in failed states especially, is proportional to the amount of excessive wealth that is used as a resource to exploit, poison and threaten those millions living in poverty around the landfills and open sewers of Third World cities.
Back in Wilmington poverty runs deeper than the inability to find a good job (accessible only by inadequate public transportation), by the inability to get out from under housing provided by slumlords, and by an inner city where the illegal drug trade engenders excessive criminal activity. Poverty is more than merely economic. Poverty of the spirit accompanies the poverty of economics.
In a city where once clubs that hosted live jazz dotted its east side and downtown, there is only one club in a gentrified neighborhood on the western fringes of the city where live jazz is regularly performed. There is still a plethora of talented jazz artists in Wilmington that are grossly disproportional to available venues, but are only heard occasionally at venues sponsored by a local church or in a public park or private club. These events are spotty and the musicians are almost never paid. They play merely for something called the love of the music.
Having written literature for more than 50 years, I have come to firmly believe that creating a cultural product for free or little remuneration, much like nearly all of Wilmington’s hugely talented remaining jazz artists, is an indication of our cultural poverty, engendered by those grim reapers of the economic wealth we produce for them, which in turn could have produced a vital cultural wealth for the rest of us. It is easy for the capitalist to impoverish those like the local producers of jazz because they can initially dump the poverty they produce in a place, hidden behind a kind of insidious subconscious racism we have yet to deal with, and almost too easily, yet very conveniently, retreat, as the local 2nd Saturday Poetry Reading has done, into the suburbs. By the same turn, we can deny that such poverty, both economic and cultural, is important, because those who live and try to find a livelihood in the city which we can avoid visiting can easily be ignored simply because we don’t have to see them.