Reading (in) Walden

607px-walden_thoreauWhat are the classics but the noblest recorded thoughts of man? They are the only oracles which are not decayed, and there are such answers to the most modern inquiry in them as Delphi and Dodona never gave.… To read well, that is, to read true books in a true spirit, is a noble exercise…. It requires a training such as the athletes underwent, the steady intention almost of the whole life to this object.

Yes, it’s Thoreau. I’m re-reading Walden. Why? Because it’s on my bookshelf, and I’m in the process of interrogating each book there. The choice: either read it or get rid of it. I hadn’t read Walden in decades, so I pulled it from the shelf.

Though I admire Thoreau’s radical simplicity—if something isn’t a necessity, get rid of it! and my shelf-purging seems to be in Thoreau’s spirit—the book’s opening hundred pages lay it on too thickly for my taste; too much finger-wagging at people who are attached to even minimal property.

But this short chapter called “Reading”: this one is a treasure. [Read more…]

The New Critics and the Barbarians

Thomas_Stearns_Eliot_by_Lady_Ottoline_Morrell_(1934)The poet and writer Dana Gioia penned an essay for the December 2013 issue of First Things titled “The Catholic Writer Today: Catholic Writers Must Renovate and Reoccupy Their Own Tradition.” The essay does not inspire much confidence in the state of “Catholic” writing at the beginning of the twenty-first century.

Our own Gregory Wolfe wrote a response published in Image issue 79, called “The Catholic Writer, Then and Now.” Mr. Wolfe’s essay consists in a broadening of the discussion to all Christian writers (Jews too). It also contains a strong pushback against Gioia’s mostly negative assessment.

In pushing back, Wolfe argues, against Gioia, that the problem is not so much that we lack good writers of faith, but that there is a general cultural unwillingness to recognize these writers of faith for what they are. Writers of faith, in short, are producing as many brilliant works of art as they ever were. It’s the public discussion that has gone silent.

In essence, Wolfe flips Gioia’s argument on its head. For Gioia, the primary factor in the decline of Catholic writers (and Christian writers more broadly) comes from the fact that the writers themselves “ceded the arts to secular society.” [Read more…]

Of Cookbooks and Lynchings

by Jessie.yang on flickr“Men and women in automobiles stood up to watch him die.” That’s the sentence one student recalled when I asked the class what was memorable in Eula Biss’s essay “Time and Distance Overcome.” The man who died was a black man “accused of attacking a white woman.” For his alleged behavior, he was “tied to a telephone pole and burned.”

After we discussed the short essay for about forty-five minutes—its structure, its late revelation of her personal connection to the subject—her grandfather was a lineman who broke his back when a telephone pole on which he had been working fell—I directed the students to the last section of Biss’s powerful Notes from No Man’s Land: American Essays, which offers additional information and reflections on the writing of each of the essays.

“I began my research for this essay,” writes Biss, “by searching for every instance of the phrase ‘telephone pole’ in the New York Times from 1880 to 1920, which resulted in 370 articles.”

This alone, I thought, is useful information for a first year college student: how one conducts research for this kind of essay. [Read more…]

My Own Commencement, Part 2: The Uses of Confusion

Photo by All Bong _ UnsplashThis post is excerpted from Gregory Wolfe’s final commencement address as director of the Seattle Pacific University Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing last month. Wolfe, who founded the program, stepped down as director yesterday.

Read part 1 here.

I’d like to close my commencement address by taking a lesson or two from the texts we’ve been studying in the Art and Faith seminar.

One of those texts is Brown: The Last Discovery of America by Richard Rodriguez. It’s a book that’s impossible to summarize: it’s ostensibly about the subject of race in America, from the perspective of a Hispanic writer, but it is so much more: a meditation on history and politics, a search for identity and community, an exploration of tragic conflict and the possibility of reconciliation.

Brown is the color of mixture, Rodriguez says, and thus of impurity. It is often considered either bland or repulsive. And yet he believes that this color speaks powerfully to that which makes us human: our nature as embodied souls. Brown is the color of his own race, but as he reminds us, the shrinking global village is becoming ever more brown. [Read more…]

Poetry Friday: “Onesimus”

onesimus2In this month of painful national and international news, Tania Runyan’s poem “Onesimus” offers a gut-deep breath of brotherhood. The poem recounts the story of Philemon, a new Christian Paul addresses on behalf of Onesimus, both Philemon’s fugitive slave and also a new convert. In “Onesimus,” Runyan singles out, perhaps, the most marginalized and voiceless in the ancient Greco-Roman world: the slave. Allowing him to directly address Philemon in a voice as ridged with humanity as a fingerprint, Onesimus focuses on images that establish the paradox the poem builds on. Gnashing lions who love “blood sweet with freedom’s fleeting breath,” flesh-splitting lashings, and even a branding are all, within the context of the narrative, lawful punishments for Onesimus’s failed escape. But the poem uses the raw imagery not to merely implicate Onesimus but to tether the reader to Onesimus’s plight much the way it tethers Onesimus to Philemon. In the last lines, the poem completes its shift from Onesimus’s plight and toward his humanity in his use of the powerful and symbolic “I am.” Onesimus cannot escape Philemon nor can Philemon escape Onesimus—either his suffering or his humanity. This revelation lodges itself into both the reader’s chest and into Philemon’s life to “pump forgiveness and prayer through your veins /…make you / see Christ in every jangling harlot….” It’s the image of both men being bound to one another that moves the poem toward a radical brotherhood that makes them both equally “a slave to God’s bidding.”   

-Jill Reid [Read more…]