by Robert Sullivan, March 20, 2009 11:09 AM
[Editor's Note: Robert Sullivan will be reading at Powell's City of Books on Burnside on Sunday, March 22, at 7:30 p.m.
This is my last day guest blogging on the Powell's Books blog, and I'd like to thank everyone involved for making this a great guest blogging week for me, including, obviously, the staff at the Powell's blog, as well as the staff of the Thoreau You Don't Know blog, which is not as big (or cool) as the staff at the Powell's blog, for sure. Picture me, at this moment at the end of a guest blogging week. Picture me as being like a guest host on Saturday Night Live, after the musical artist has played a second time, at the point in the show where, if you are as old as the staff of The Thoreau You Don't Know, you are thinking, What am I doing still up at this hour? You know how sometimes the guest was kind of OK, maybe even a little lame, and you are more interested in seeing the cast members of the show, and how they look out of character, in the relaxed moments before the close? Well, that's kind of how this last guest blog post is, in my blogging imagination: I am surrounded by cool Powell's blog people, looking a little lame, but happy to be surrounded by cool Powell's blog people — and wondering where the after party is, of course.
To review the guest blogging week, I like to think I had some decent links, mentioned some great books, and kept brief my notes on my whereabouts and doings on a given day (the exception being on Saint Patrick's Day when I went to the White House and probably typed too much about it).
Before I go, I'd like to just throw some more links out there and mention a few more books that I am thinking about at the moment. Here is the weather in my neighborhood, which is where I would like to be instead of where I am, which is Palm Springs, California — I don't play golf and I melt in the sun, and everyone here senses I feel out of place. Here is a Thoreau readings site where I have spent too much time. Here is Stevie Wonder on Sesame Street, playing "Superstition" — this, if I may be so bold as to stretch out my writer powers (such as they are) in all their descriptive glory, is sooooooo good. (I mean this is crazy good.) Here's a Q&A with my friend Matthew Sharpe, with the Qer asking him for As about his novel Jamestown. Here are Library of Congress photos on Flicker.
Sailing on to Portland. Photo via Library of Congress on Flicker.
Books I am thinking about include: The Troubles by JG Farrell; The South by Colm Toíbín; Beckett's Letters; and A Month in the Country by J L Carr. I'd also like to mention, in closing, that when I began writing this Thoreau book, I bought a complete edition of Thoreau's journals at Powell's, while I was in Portland writing about an incredible film called I'm Not There and rereading a great novel by Oregon native Jon Raymond, The Half-Life. I also bought a ton of Thoreau books on that trip, including one of my favorites, by Robert Bly, the great Minnesota poet: The Winged Life.
Magazine pieces I am reading include the New York Review of Books piece about E. M. Forster by Zadie Smith, which is really blowing me away and which I would be finished with if I weren't on the road.
There — blogged. Now, I must get back on the road to make it to Powell's to read in person to person, if any come by. So thank you. Thanks you for reading, and thank you for reading this, if you have made it this far, and if you have, then you know who you are, naturally. Thank you again to the Powells blog staff. I really only have one question as the credits roll and we go to a commercial. It concerns a writerly goal of mine, as well as a personal and emotional goal. Am I on the Burnside marquee? If not, then I will keep writing. That's reason enough. That and it being fun, writing, kind of like the Thoreau You Don't Know, who was, believe it or not, a
by Robert Sullivan, March 19, 2009 1:42 PM
I am bloggin' today, from a hotel room in L.A., which rhymes, one of the few good things about my current situation. Maybe I should say a few things about Thoreau and travel, given that I am traveling. Thoreau took the train. People think he just walked, and he liked to walk; he walked every day. But he was not anti-train.
by Robert Sullivan, March 18, 2009 11:48 AM
Readers of this blog, and readers in general, will be pleased to hear that today's entry from this guest blogger will be short — or is at least envisioned by the guest blogger as being short. Reason: the staff of the Thoreau You Don't Know
blogging team (i.e., me and my wife and kids, all of whom always tell me to keep my blog posts short, among other things I should keep short) was out late. Out late where? Out late at the White House! For Saint Patrick's Day. Readers of yesterday's guest blog
will recall that the How Not to Get Rich Orchestra, which is us, was invited to the White House party yesterday. This was an historic evening for two reasons: (1) we had never been to the White House and (2) I have never been out on Saint Patrick's Day. I was raised in an Irish-American family to believe that Saint Patrick's Day was best celebrated inside with family and some of the things that go with being an Irish-American family, including perhaps talking, which is today akin to blogging too much. We took the train to the White House from New York City, and suffice it to say that, given the giant green hats and the number of people inebriated at 11:00 in the morning in midtown Manhattan, I would take the White House party over the Times Square one any day.
We had no idea what to expect, and if you go to parties at the White House all the time then you can stop reading here, if you haven't already, for I am about to list some things I remember, such as: that you can't believe they are letting you in the gate; that the entrance hall is bright and wide, offers a view across the lawns to the Washington Monument; that the Map Room has the last map that FDR used in WWII; that if you are waiting in the Map Room to meet the Obamas, then you might get really nervous; that the social staff is brilliant, assisting you while you are there, explaining, hosting, leading, so that if you passed out (sans alcohol, which is to say just from nerves, as I might have), they would still get you through; that the Obamas are even taller than you think; that they are, in the words of my wife, "even more beautiful"; that after you speak with them for a second, the 17-year-old banjo and mandolin player of your family band is likely to repeat over and over, "He is so cool."
Additionally, we can tell you that the food at a White House Saint Pat's party is excellent, and that if you are lucky enough to hear Paul Muldoon read next time you are there, you will be lucky indeed. The faces in the front row were transfixed as he read three poems, which you can understand if you listen to most anything by Muldoon, such as this.
As far as music goes, we were wondering if Susan McKeown would be there, one of our favorite singers and a Portland, Oregon, habitué. However, the music was by Celtic Thunder, a band that is like a cross between American Idol and the Four Tenors, and maybe something on Broadway that I have not yet seen. The White House guests loved them. An Irish military band played in the front hall. We walked around and talked and laughed and saw senators and congress people (Kerry, Clinton, Pelosi) and the portrait of Lincoln (reminding me of Garry Will's book on the Gettysburg Address, one of my all time favorites, Wills being an inspiration for The Thoreau You Don't Know), and at one point I took a sip of my drink and thought, Man, I am drinking beer in the White House! (Two beers, I hasten to note, in small glasses.) The last time the likes of me were in the White House, Andrew Jackson was president, and they had to redecorate the place afterward, as well as call the cops — or at least that's my understanding. It's true the fountains ran green: Michelle Obama's idea, reportedly, which struck me as more Chicago than Irish, and as very cool.
As best I can recall, the president said something about how we should all — Irish and Americans and Irish-Americans — stay as long as we like, but we had to catch a train back by 10:00 so I could start out this morning for the West Coast and Portland, Oregon, and talk about Thoreau, who, by the way, threw a big party every year, sometimes at his house, sometimes at Walden Pond, always with melons (his specialty) and often with wine. Probably inviting the local Irish who lived with him at Walden
by Robert Sullivan, March 17, 2009 10:03 AM
In the musical spirit of the day (Saint Patrick's) and of Thoreau (the flute player), a How Not to Get Rich Orchestra (above).
It being Saint Patrick's Day, it seems only appropriate to say a few words about Henry David Thoreau and the Irish, or, more specifically, the Irish who came to America when he was writing and working and living in Concord, Massachusetts, as well as New York. A question people might ask when it comes to Thoreau and the Irish might be: huh? A nature writer and the Irish? But the Irish are everywhere in Thoreau country — at Walden Pond, where they were living for a while in small houses (get it?) as they worked on the railroad, and in Concord homes; Thoreau's family employed Irish servants at their home, which was run as a boarding house, given that economic times were tough. Meanwhile, in Boston and New York, in the cities of the Eastern seaboard, the Irish were flooding into America as a result of the Irish famine, what is known as An Gorta Mór, or, in Irish, the Great Hunger. The years of emigration roughly coincided with the year that Thoreau began and finished Walden, when 1.6 million Irish immigrants came to the U.S., more than the total number of all immigrants who had come to the U.S. during the previous 70 years. When he built his house at Walden, he recycled a lot of wood from an Irish worker's house.
Looking at Thoreau and the Irish is a good way to change how you might think of Thoreau — to rethink him as urban, as a reporter on the economic and peopled scene. On the Irish, his opinions start out aligning with the rest of the public's opinion, though maybe not quite as bad. The mayor of Boston, Theodore Lyman, called them "a race that will never be infused into our own, but on the contrary will remain distinct and hostile." And that was a kind of positive version of what he was saying. Crania America, one of many nativist rags at the time, said, "Their wild look and manner, mud cabins and funereal howlings recall… a barbarous age." In Walden, Thoreau starts out hitting the racist stereotypes hard, equating the Irish with a lowly, bog-ish existence, for instance. But as time passes, his opinions change — a little bit in Walden, but a lot in his journals (a complete set of which I bought at the Rare Book Room at Powell's a few years ago while pining for the first edition Ulysses by James Joyce that used to be there — I recommend Yale University Press's excerpts of the journals, his lifelong and amazing project).
In town, he eventually takes up the cause of the Irish, writing letters to relatives back in Ireland, praising their work around town, and noticing that the walls they build are maybe better than the walls people are building in Concord. (See David Foster's Thoreau's Country.) At one point, when a farmer tries to screw over a group of workers, Thoreau complains, fights for them, and eventually takes up a collection in town for the Irish workers, to replace the lost payment. Is he as cool as Margaret Fuller, the Transcendentalist who writes about how the Irish women are practically made slaves as nannies? Not quite, but that's because no one is as cool as Margaret Fuller.
I have argued about this pro-Irish and pro-immigrant Thoreau with Peter Quinn, author of Banished Children of Eve, a great novel about the Civil War draft riots. In his also great book Looking for Jimmy, Quinn posits that Thoreau's description of the immigrants in the opening of Thoreau's Cape Cod is derisive, but I think it is significant that Thoreau's is one of the few descriptions of the horror of the Irish famine at the time, or even until recently. (Melville's Redburn also describes the horror of the famine ships.) I also think the way Thoreau deals with the horror of the scene has a lot to do with the horror that Thoreau had seen in his life: explosions, violent deaths, the death of his brother in his arms — about which I will not go into here, because I am feeling the joy of Saint Patrick's Day. Suffice it to say, when everyone else in America is saying, immigrants out, when they are talking Manifest Destiny, Thoreau is standing at the edge of the nation and looking at the tide of immigrants and seeing immigration (as opposed to God-inspired conquering) as the engine of the American dream.
As far as the Saint Patrick's Day plans of the blogging staff of The Thoreau You Don't Know goes, we are — believe it or not — getting ready to go to the White House for the Saint Patrick's Day reception. We are going in our capacity as the How Not to Get Rich Orchestra, an orchestra that has a flexible lineup but is, at its core, this author and his two children, as managed by the children's mom. We are not good or anything, but we sing a lot of old songs from the I.W.W., or Wobblies, as mentioned in Wildmen, Wobblies and Whistle Punks: Stewart Holbrook's Lowbrow Northwest.
by Robert Sullivan, March 16, 2009 10:30 AM
Here, at the beginning of my first post as a guest blogger for Powells.com, as well as my first guest blog anywhere, I feel compelled to point out, as I take a break from packing for a trip to Powell's
, that my own, 10-year long trip to a book about Henry David Thoreau
, noted New England writer, began in Portland, around 1998, in an office building on SW Fourth and Washington Street.
There, drinking Coffee People coffee and poring over the U.S. Geological Survey maps of New Jersey that I had purchased at Powell's travel bookstore, then in Pioneer Square, I saw a little marsh-surrounded notation in the center of a large polluted swamp that said what I could not believe: Walden Swamp.
(A Bean Field in New Jersey, via the Library of Congress)
How could I get there, given that it was in polluted waters off the New Jersey Turnpike? It was unhikeable, but was it even possible to reach it by canoe? And, most importantly, what did it have to do with the author of Walden himself, Henry David Thoreau?
Once I canoed there, I discovered that it was barely even land — building a cabin was out of the question, but it gave me the idea to plant some jokes in the book that I eventually wrote, The Meadowlands, and it was a joke that I worked for a long time. I wrote a book about rats that was set in an alley, a la Thoreau setting up at Walden Pond, and even started with a line of homage:
Me: When I wrote the following account of my experiences with rats, I lived in an apartment building...
HDT: When I wrote the following pages, or the bulk of them, I lived alone, in the woods...
One of the many jokes in Walden, after all, is on the name Walden, which Thoreau puns on: walled in. (Walden Pond was walled in by hills.) I like to think that a rat alley is also walled in. An alley is itself, by definition, walled in, a street surrounded by walls.
I suppose I should come to a point in this blog, and I will do that by saying that I finally realized that Thoreau wasn't the nature writer I'd gone in thinking he was. I began to see that the Thoreau I had in my head was a joker, a punaholic, a comic with spiritual and economic intent — writing at a time of economic panic and crisis, a time when people were worried about whether or not the American economy was even working, if you can imagine. I began to see that Thoreau was a guy who might have been up for a canoe trip to look for the undiscovered body of Jimmy Hoffa, as I did in the Meadowlands on a trip from Oregon. Or if not that, per se, some trip along those lines. Thoreau, in fact, was a kind of naturized city guy.
It's a long story, and this is a blog, and I would not presume to post for too long. So let me just say what my itinerary is for this week, the week of the launch of The Thoreau You Don't Know. I am in Brooklyn, New York, at this moment, blogging. Tomorrow I go to the White House, for the Saint Patrick's Day reception that the President and First Lady are throwing. I am going as a member of the How Not to Get Rich Orchestra, the orchestra named after the eponymous book I wrote, which, although I did not completely realize it at the time, was very Thoreau. Then, if I don't pass out due to extreme nervousness, I will leave for California to do some reporting and to see a play in L.A., after which I will arrive in Portland, Oregon, my second hometown.
On a final, coffee-related note: believe it or not, a Stumptown Coffee opened up just down the street from me here in Brooklyn. One of the things I love about Stumptown, aside from the coffee, is that they were one of the early bases of a band formerly based in Portland, a band that played at my last reading at Powell's (for a book called Cross Country). I am speaking, of course, of Foghorn Stringband. Some of the members have gone on to more music; some have gone on to food, as this Portland foodcart blog indicates; and some are just incredible printers, still printing, as they do at Stumptown Printers.
As you can see, when I am not in Portland, I think about Portland. I also think about swamps, rats, Thoreau, my sister (who has an incredible garden in Portland), and the light on the Cascade Mountains, just after the rain. Portland is one of those places where you can have a life, as opposed to what people elsewhere strive to have, which is a career. When I post again, maybe I will discuss how having a life, as opposed to having a career, while living in a city could possible have anything to do with Thoreau, a guy who pitched a hermit out in a cabin in the middle of some trees