All alone in the crowd at a Charlotte bookstore

“I was supposed to appear at a bookstore in Charlotte, North Carolina, which is a conservative Bible-belt town. My publisher [of “A Fortunate Age”] said, ‘There’s no point in going [from New York City] to Charlotte, it’s going to be a complete waste of time, nobody buys literary fiction in Charlotte, the only thing that sells is Christian fiction.’ But we have a good friend whose mom said, ‘You should definitely do it, it’s such a great bookstore, all these people are going to come.’

“So we put our kids in the car, raced to get there, and I was frazzled, and basically no one came. They said that it would be a reading, but it wasn’t. They just wanted me to sign books. But nobody’s heard of me! Book signings are for famous people….

“The thing that made it particularly brutal was that my friend’s mom came with two very sweet Southern ladies from her book club, and they just sat at the table where I was supposed to be signing books. The bookstore was crowded. And people kept looking at me, trying to figure out what was going on. They looked like they wanted to approach me. But there were these chattering ladies sitting there. And passers-by probably thought I was just some person who was camped out with my friends.”

— From an interview with novelist and memoirist Joanna Smith Rakoff at (Feb. 16, 2012)


Fairmont couldn’t compete with ‘New York’s siren song’

A link posted by the indefatigable Jim Romenesko reminded me to check in with author Thomas Kunkel, who discovered Joseph Mitchell’s unfinished memoir while researching a biography of the uniquely esteemed New Yorker writer.
Kunkel took a break from his duties as president of St. Norbert College in De Pere, Wis., to recall via email his impressions of Mitchell’s native Fairmont:
“I have been to Fairmont several times, but those visits were very early in my research and I am almost embarrassed to say how long ago that was.
“The place did not leave a huge impression on me, I have to say, but that was in part because I was focusing more intently on the people I was there to see — Joe’s youngest brother, Harry, for instance, and his nephew Jack, whom he was very close to.
“I come from southern Indiana, which has many similar small towns and is a big farming area, so that backdrop all felt very familiar. It was a friendly place but the sort of small town that you see today and wonder how on earth people make it. And certainly I got the sense why a creative young fellow in 1929, no matter how much he loved the place, might have been tempted by New York’s siren song. But for outsiders like Joe Mitchell gravitating to New York, there never would have been a New Yorker magazine!”
“To be honest, I regret that I hadn’t found Joe’s memoir-in-progress recollections of Fairmont before I spent time there. His memories are so vivid that I would have looked the place over again in a new light — as I may yet do.”

Robert Ruark still gets around

When I travel abroad, I often checkout the local bookstores to see if they carry books by any Tar Heel authors. I am used to finding translations of blockbuster novels by Kathy Reichs, Nicholas Sparks, Orson Scott Card, or Patricia Cornwell. There were some of those in a bookstore in Bratislava that I went in last month, but imagine by surprise to find this:


It’s a 2012 Slovak edition of Robert Ruark’s The Honey Badger. Seeing this book piqued my interest–are Ruark’s books currently being published in other places and other languages? Yes. Since 2000, translations of Ruark’s books have appeared in Chinese, Czech, German, and Vietnamese.

Literary pantheon: One Wolfe out, one Wolfe in?

“I am old enough to remember when Thomas Wolfe seemed secure in the pantheon of 20th-century American writers, the equal, nearly, of Faulkner and Fitzgerald and Hemingway. He is gone from the pantheon today, and I doubt that Tom Wolfe gets asked about his kinship to Thomas Wolfe anymore.

“The obscurity of Thomas is an odd but impressive testament to the magnitude of Tom’s fame and, more important, the vastness of his literary achievement over a career spanning a half-century.”

— From “The Right Wolfe” by Andrew Ferguson in Commentary (November 2012) 

  Tom told George Plimpton he ignores Thomas’s “fluctuations on the literary stock market.”


Ross McElwee Fan Club meets here

Ross McElwee‘s ‘Sherman’s March’ forever altered my writing life. By being as self-reflexive as it is, a heat-seeking missile destroying whatever it touches, the film becomes a thoroughgoing exploration of the interconnections between desire, filmmaking, nuclear weaponry and war, rather than being about only General Sherman….

“…  The best nonfiction jumps the tracks, using its ‘subject’ as a Trojan horse to get at richer material than the writer originally intended. McElwee’s ‘Bright Leaves’ pretends to be about his conflicted relation to his family’s tobacco farm, whereas it’s really about the way in which we all will do anything — make a movie, smoke cigarettes, collect film stills, build a birdhouse, hold a lifelong torch for someone, find religion — to try to get beyond ourselves.”

— From “How Literature Saved My Life” by David Shields (2013)

Shields, whose latest has drawn reviews both appreciative and not so, may be an even bigger fan of the Charlotte-born McElwee than I am.  (“A heat-seeking missile destroying whatever it touches”? — can’t top that.)


Joe Mitchell’s homesick struggle to belong

“Several years ago… I began to be oppressed by a feeling that New York City had gone past me and that I didn’t belong here anymore. I sometimes went on from that to a feeling that I never had belonged here, and that could be especially painful. At first, these feelings were vague and sporadic, but they gradually become more definite and quite frequent. Ever since I came to New York City, I have been going back to North Carolina for a visit once or twice a year, and now I began going back more often and staying longer. At one point, after a visit of a month and a half, I had about made up my mind to stay down there for good, and then I began to be oppressed by a feeling that things had gone past me in North Carolina also, and that I didn’t belong down there anymore, either. I began to feel painfully out of place wherever I was. When I was in New York City, I was often homesick for North Carolina; when I was in North Carolina, I was often homesick for New York City. Then, one Saturday afternoon, while I was walking around the ruins of Washington Market, something happened to me that led me, step by step, out of my depression. A change took place in me. And that is what I want to tell about.”

— From the last paragraph of “Street Life” by Joseph Mitchell in The New Yorker (Feb. 11 and 18, 2013)

Something new from the late and legendarily blocked Joe Mitchell?

The editors explain: “Thomas Kunkel, while researching a forthcoming biography of Mitchell, learned of several chapters of an unfinished memoir that Mitchell started in the late sixties and early seventies.” 

So more chapters are queued up at 4 Times Square? Fans of the Fairmont native may have cause for anticipation (although only in the New Yorker would “And that is what I want to tell about” qualify as a cliffhanger).


Celebrating Hanukkah among Tar Heel Christians

Hannukah, the Jewish festival of lights, offered pale competition for Christmas—puny candles against a dazzling tree, ‘Rock of Ages’ against the tyranny of carols and decorations that took over the stores, the radio, the schools, and the imagination of all my friends. Parents billed Hannukah as ‘better than Christmas,’ an unintentional error that placed a minor Jewish celebration beside Christianity on parade, like comparing sandlot baseball to the World Series. Hanukkah simply could never substitute—for one thing, it lasted eight days, and was almost always out of sync with Christmas, so you had to explain to your friends that you didn’t sneak and open your Christmas presents early, but that your holiday was different; and that could lead to a ‘You mean you don’t celebrate Christmas? Why not?’ So I usually played with my toys in secret until Christmas day. I would always save the gifts from my friends until Christmas morning because it didn’t seem right to open gentile gifts on a Jewish holiday and, besides, if I waited I’d have a real surprise to talk about in the afternoon when they came over to show off their stuff, rather than pretending that I had ripped open eight-day old toys that very morning….It didn’t make up for much when little Billy White said,’Gee, eight days of presents…I wish I was Jewish.’

-from Eli Evans’s The Provincials: A Personal History of Jews in the South. Evans was born and raised in Durham, the son of E.J. “Mutt” Evans, the mayor of Durham from 1950-1962.The younger Evans graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill in 1958 and Yale Law School in 1963. He worked as a speech writer on the staff of President Lyndon B. Johnson from 1964-1965. Evans served as a senior program officer for the Carnegie Corporation of New York from 1967-1977. In 1977 he joined the Charles H. Revson Foundation as president and remained in that position until his retirement in 2003. Evans’s personal papers are held by the Southern Historical Collection at Wilson Library.

North Carolina’s Bard of WWII: Randall Jarrell

Seen on the sea, no sign; no sign, no sign
In the black firs and terraces of hills
Ragged in mist. The cone narrows, snow
Glares from the bleak walls of a crater. No.
Again the houses jerk like paper, turn,
And the surf streams by: a port of toys
Is starred with its fires and faces; but no sign.

In the level light, over the fiery shores,
The plane circles stubbornly: the eyes distending
With hatred and misery and longing, stare
Over the blackening ocean for a corpse.
The fires are guttering; the dials fall,
A long dry shudder climbs along his spine,
His fingers tremble; but his hard unchanging stare
Moves unacceptingly: I have a friend.

The fires are grey; no star, no sign
Winks from the breathing darkness of the carrier
Where the pilot circles for his wingman; where,
Gliding above the cities’ shells, a stubborn eye
Among the embers of the nations, achingly
Tracing the circles of that worn, unchanging No
The lives’ long war, lost war—the pilot sleeps.

-“The Dead Wingman” from Randall Jarrell’s Losses, published in 1948.

On Pearl Harbor Day we remember the life and work of Jarrell, whose poetry was deeply influenced by World War II and his service in the U.S. Army Air Service. Although Jarrell aspired to be a pilot, he spent 1942-1946 as a celestial navigation tower operator, primarily in Arizona. The stories he heard from pilots and others inspired numerous poems, including his best-known, “The Death of the Ball-Turret Gunner,” published in his second volume of verse, Little Friend, Little Friend, in 1945.

From my mother’s sleep I fell into the State,
And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze.
Six miles from earth, loosed from its dream of life,
I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters.
When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.

Upon leaving the Air Service, Jarrell, who had already received acclaim for his poetry, moved to New York City. He continued writing verse, thanks to a Guggenheim Fellowship, served as the book review editor for The Nation and taught at Sarah Lawrence College.

In 1947, Jarrell, who had quickly tired of New York, moved to Greensboro, where he taught in the English department at Women’s College (now UNC-Greensboro). With the exception of short teaching stints around the country and internationally, Jarrell remained at Women’s College for the next 18 years. He served as the nation’s Poet Laureate from 1956-1958. In 1961 he was awarded a National Book Award for his poetry volume The Woman at the Washington Zoo. And in 1962 Jarrell received the O. Max Gardner Award, one of the state’s highest honors.

Jarrell died on October 14, 1965, when he was struck by a car while walking at dusk along U.S. 15-501 near Chapel Hill. He had moved there to teach at the university a few months prior. In addition to poetry, Jarrell’s published works include children’s stories, essays, criticism and a single novel.

The story behind the children’s book Tobe

Page 2 of children's book Tobe

Benjamin Filene’s curiosity about a children’s book in the North Carolina Collection led him in search of the story behind its creation and the individuals portrayed in it. And this weekend Filene, an historian at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, will share his discoveries during a presentation at the Orange County Public Library in Hillsborough.

The 121-page book,Tobe, was written by Stella Gentry Sharpe and published by the University of North Carolina Press in 1939. According to Filene, Sharpe, a longtime teacher in the Hillsborough schools who lived with her husband on a farm just north of Chapel Hill, wrote the book in response to a question from an African-American boy who lived near her. The boy, Clay McCauley Jr., wanted to know why there were no children’s books with boys that looked like him. Sharpe set out to prove McCauley wrong.

In crafting her story of a young African-American farm boy and his family, Sharpe consulted noted UNC sociologist Guy Johnson and Marion Rex Trabue, a former head of the School of Education at UNC. While the name of her main character, Tobe, was made up, other names in the book are those of McCauley’s siblings–Raeford, Rufus and twin boys Alvis and Alton.

The photographs that accompanied Sharpe’s stories were taken by Charles Farrell, the first professional photographer for the Greensboro Daily News. When Farrell was ready to shoot photographs for Sharpe’s book, the McCauley children had grown too old to serve as subjects. Instead, Farrell turned to children and adults in Goshen, an African-American township south of Greensboro. Tobe was portrayed by Charles Garner, who was known to family and friend as “Windy.” Garner, now 81 and living in Georgia, was seven-years-old when he posed for Farrell. Garner’s siblings, parents and cousin’s family were enlisted to portray other characters in Tobe.

Now Filene is trying to find out more about the McCauley family. He has spoken with Charles McCauley Jr’s niece, who was a child when the book was published. But Filene is hoping others can add to the story of Tobe. Meanwhile, the book lives on. In 1993, it was republished by a small press specializing in multi-cultural literature.

An online literary map of North Carolina

Screenshot of North Carolina Literary Map

Congratulations to our library colleagues at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, who are re-launching their website the North Carolina Literary Map today. The site includes 2,583 North Carolina authors and 4,808 titles set in real or fictional locations in North Carolina. The site’s creators note that their selection process was broad and inclusive. They write:

The criteria focuses on works written about North Carolina and authors who were born in North Carolina, who currently live or have lived in North Carolina, who have written about North Carolina, or who have made a significant contribution to the North Carolina’s literary landscape. The author must have at least one publication cataloged by the Library of Congress.

Wonder how many works are about or have been set in Northampton County? The answer is now at hand.

You can be a part of today’s launch festivities by joining the site’s creators for a webinar at 3:30.