Category: First Editions (Page 1 of 6)

Collecting First Editions: ‘Matterhorn’ by Karl Marlantes

By Lisa Newman

Karl Marlantes, a decorated Marine veteran of the Vietnam war, spent thirty years writing Matterhorn: A Novel. While writing the book was its own lonely struggle, getting it published was another beast. This story is about the power of independent presses and bookselling.

matterhorn EL LEONKarl Marlantes found a publisher in El Léon Literary Arts, a small press privately funded through donations. Led by author Thomas Farber, the operation is known to run on a $200 a year travel and entertainment budget and publishes literary works that might not seem commercially viable by mainstream publishers. By the time the 700-page Matterhorn was printed in softcover and review copies were sent out, a group of booksellers got the attention of El Léon by submitting Matterhorn to a first-novel contest. Soon Farber began getting calls from larger publishers. Eventually, a deal with the independent press Grove Atlantic was made and Matterhorn was released in hardback in 2010. Behind the scenes, Grove Atlantic’s Morgan Entrekin championed Matterhorn to booksellers across the country. The success of Matterhorn is due to the perseverance of its author, small presses, and the diligence of booksellers. It is a story of authenticity as opposed to overblown media hype.

matterhorn FESThis authenticity leads to a collectible book. The copies of Matterhorn printed in softcover at El Léon became advanced copies for Grove Atlantic’s hardcover edition. For collectors, that softcover is the true first edition. Matterhorn follows in the tradition of other great war novels like Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead and James Jones’ The Thin Red Line.

Sebastian Junger, noted author, filmmaker, and journalist, reviewed Matterhorn for The New York Times:

Karl Marlantes’s first novel, Matterhorn, is about a company of Marines who build, abandon and retake an outpost on a remote hilltop in Vietnam. According to the publisher, Marlantes—a highly decorated Vietnam vet—spent 30 years writing this book. It was originally 1,600 pages long; now it is 600. Reading his account of the bloody folly surrounding the Matterhorn outpost, you get the feeling Marlantes is not overly worried about the attention span of his readers; you get the feeling he was not desperate or impatient to be published. Rather, he seems like a man whose life was radically altered by war, and who now wants to pass along the favor. And with a desperate fury, he does.

Karl Marlantes followed Matterhorn with a nonfiction book on Vietnam called What It Is Like to Go to War. His reflections on Vietnam are featured prominently in “The Vietnam War,” a film by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick. Marlantes is at work on his second novel.

‘The Last Tycoon’ by F. Scott Fitzgerald

“The Last Tycoon” by F. Scott Fitzgerald. New York, NY: Scribner, 1941.

F. Scott Fitzgerald published four novels and numerous short stories before his early death from alcoholism. Throughout his career, he had his critics and did not achieve his status as one of the most influential modern American writers until after his death. The author of “The Great Gatsby” was working on a Hollywood novel at the time of his death which would be published posthumously as “The Last Tycoon.”

In the early fall of 1939, Fitzgerald sent a proposal for a story to Collier’s magazine. The editor agreed to serialize the novel if Fitzgerald would send a 15,000 word advance for his approval. The screenwriting experience and his relationship with movie producer Irving Thalberg fueled his ideas for the novel but the actual writing only took a few months. With his health deteriorating, Fitzgerald failed, however, to reach the 15,000 word advance for Collier’s and instead sent in only 6,000 words. He was rejected in a telegraph but with a request for more work by Collier’s Kenneth Littauer: “FIRST THOUSAND WORDS PRETTY CRIPTIC THEREFORE [sic] DISAPPOINTING . . .”

edmund wilsonAfter his death in 1940, a longtime critic and friend Edmund Wilson secured permission from Fitzgerald’s family to publish “The Last Tycoon.” Wilson had never held back his negative criticism of the author’s work, even from Fitzgerald’s beginnings when Wilson published a satirical poem arguing that the young writer’s work was shallow and superficial. But Wilson was deeply affected by his death, expressing in a letter to Fitzgerald’s wife, Zelda: “I feel myself as though I had been suddenly robbed of some part of my own personality.”

last tycoonWilson, who must have felt some regret at being so critical of what he often called a “commercial” and “trashy” writer, decided to set the tone for Fitzgerald’s legacy by preparing his last manuscript and titling it “The Last Tycoon.” It would be published in book form accompanied strategically by “The Great Gatsby” and selected short stories. In the Foreword, Wilson announced “The Last Tycoon” to be “Fitzgerald’s most mature piece of work” and “the best novel we have had about Hollywood.” Other critics followed with similar praise. Novelist J. F. Powers asserted that “The Last Tycoon” contained more of his best writing than anything he had ever done and Fitzgerald’s best had always been the best there was.”

last tycoon DECOFitzgerald’s influence, his attention to the illusive American dream, is seen in the work of Richard Yates, J. D. Salinger, Joseph Heller, and many contemporary writers. Mystery writer, Raymond Chandler, wrote that that “Fitzgerald is a subject no one has the right to mess up . . . He had one of the rarest qualities in all of literature . . . The word is charm—charm as Keats would have used it . . . It’s a kind of subdued magic, controlled and exquisite.” While Fitzgerald had sold less than 25,000 copies of “The Great Gatsby” at the time of his death, this book has now sold over 25 million copies worldwide.

‘The Great Gatsby’ dust cover has created its own story

In celebration of the release of John Grisham’s Camino Island, whose plot revolves around stolen F. Scott Fitzgerald manuscripts, Lisa has been tracing Fitzgerald’s career through his novels. You can read her examinations of This Side of Paradise here and The Beautiful and Damned here.

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. New York, NY: Scribner’s, First Edition, April 10, 1925.

gatsby firstThe cover art for The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald (Scribner) is one of the most enduring covers in book publishing history. It also said to be the most expensive piece of paper in book collecting.

Before the publication of The Great Gatsby in 1925, Scribner’s had published two novels by Fitzgerald, This Side of Paradise (1920) and The Beautiful and Damned (1922). Both of the dust jackets for these novels displayed rather straight-forward scenes from the novels, a man and a woman in courtship. Color is downplayed with the use of three muted shades of orange, gray, and black.

The art of the Gatsby jacket by Cuban artist Francis Cugat is remarkable for its symbolic nature, its use of color, and its fine details. Two feminine eyes float over a nocturnal Coney Island carnival scene. Two nudes are subtly reclining in the irises. A brush of glare, or perhaps a tear, in the midnight blue sky as well as the explosive light emanating from the carnival scene below suggest tragedy.

While Fitzgerald was in the middle of writing The Great Gatsby in the summer of 1924, he was shown a draft of the jacket. His reaction is famously documented in a letter to Maxwell Perkins: “For Christ’s sake, don’t give anyone that dust jacket you’re saving for me. I’ve written it into the book.”This influence of a dust jacket on the writing of a book is one of the only recorded instances. Cugat never produced another dust jacket, but his art is still beautifully reproduced on the paperback copies that many high school students purchase for required school reading.

The Great Gatsby as a first edition (18,000 copies in the first printing) is not one of the rarest books, but the survival of the dust jacket is key. The jacket, made too tall for the book, easily chipped, which only encouraged the owner to toss the jacket into the waste bin before long. The dust jacket of The Great Gatsby is one of the most outstanding examples of increased value in a first edition. Without the jacket, a first edition may sell for under $10,000. With the jacket, the price can be upwards of $100,000.

‘The Beautiful and Damned’ looks at Fitzgeralds’ marriage

In celebration of the release of John Grisham’s Camino Island, whose plot revolves around stolen F. Scott Fitzgerald manuscripts, Lisa has been tracing Fitzgerald’s career through his novels. You can read last week’s examination of This Side of Paradise here.

The Beautiful and Damned by F. Scott Fitzgerald. New York, NY: Scribner’s, First Edition, 1922.

beautiful and damnedAfter the great success of his first novel, This Side of Paradise, F. Scott Fitzgerald enjoyed positive reviews for The Beautiful and Damned. Many critics of the time felt that the writer had matured from the episodic style of Paradiseto a novel with a strong omniscient narrator. The oddest review, however, came from his wife, Zelda, in the New York Tribune under the title “Friend Husband’s Latest.” She wittily encouraged readers to buy her husband’s book because there was an expensive dress and platinum ring she longed for. She also admitted that she had allowed her husband to incorporate pieces of her writing into the novel: “One one page I recognized a portion of an old diary of mine which mysteriously disappeared…[it] seems that plagiarism begins at home.”

The Beautiful and Damned is a thinly veiled look at Fitzgerald’s marriage to Zelda. He admitted that he could not stop writing about his domestic life and count not bring himself to change their excessive alcoholic and spending habits. At one point after the publication of The Beautiful and Damned, the Fitzgeralds were living off $36,000 a year, which was 20 times that of the average American.

Maxwell Perkins, Fitzgerald’s agent and confidant, was a reader of his manuscripts. Unlike some of Fitzgerald’s other readers, Perkins provided constructive criticism on the structure and content of the writing. Unfortunately, he was a terrible speller and copy editor. Apparently, there was no solution to this, and first printings of all the novels and story collections are noted for copious grammatical, spelling, and factual errors. At a speed that pleased his pocket book, Fitzgerald dashed off stories for magazine publication as well. From 1919 to 1929, he increased his earnings from $30 a story to $4000 a story. From 1921 to 1922, The Beautiful and Damned was also serialized in the Metropolitan magazine in an edited form before hitting bookshelves on March 4, 1922.

As the years passed, Fitzgerald continued his excessive lifestyle. (He was known to display hundred dollar bills in his vest pockets at parties.) A moment of clarity emerged out of the chaos: “I’ve realized how much I’ve–well, almost deteriorated in three years since the publication of The Beautiful and Damned…If I’d spent as much time reading or travelling or doing anything–even staying healthy–it’d be different but i spent it uselessly, neither in study nor in contemplation but only in drinking and raising hell generally.”

What followed the tragic Beautiful and Damned was The Great Gatsby, a work that did not realize its full success that did not realize its full success until after Fitzgerald’s death at the age of 44. Unexpectedly, it also was the book that changed the way publishers marketed their books.

‘Camino Island’ and the Book Collector: ‘This Side of Paradise’

This Side of Paradise by F. Scott Fitzgerald. New York, NY: Scribner’s, First Edition, March 26, 1920. 

f scott fitzgeraldF. Scott Fitzgerald wrote his first novel, This Side of Paradise, as a semi-autobiographical account of his college years at Princeton University. Three more novels and numerous collections of short stories followed during his lifetime. He experienced limited success during his short life of 44 years, and regard as one of the greatest American writers came after his death. Over time, Fitzgerald’s work became synonymous with the Jazz Age, the lost generation of the 1920s, and the term, “flapper.” In a special insert in This Side of Paradise, Fitzgerald wrote to the American Booksellers Association:

“My whole theory of writing I can sum up in one sentence: An author ought to write for the youth of his own generation, the critics of the next, and the schoolmasters ever afterward.”

The young author could not have proved his theory more succinctly. As a debut novel, This Side of Paradise flew off the shelves on a Friday, March 26, 1920. The first printing of 3,000 copies sold out within a week and two more printings were issued within a month. Fitzgerald had written the new modern novel, a sophisticated sequence of episodic scenes, prose, poetry, drama, book lists and quotations revolving around the life of Princeton student Amory Blaine. He wrote for his generation and commented in a 1921 interview: “I’m sick of the sexless animals writers have been giving us.” And “schoolmasters ever afterward” have been assigning The Great Gatsby, almost as a right of passage into adulthood.

John Grisham’s Camino Island (on sale June 6) highlights the high level of collectibility of Fitzgerald’s work in the form of a biblio-caper. When the manuscripts of Fitzgerald’s five novels are stolen from Princeton University, a young writer is solicited to help spy on a bookseller suspected to be involved in the heist. As a reader and collector of books, I had to do some of my own sleuthing into the collector’s world of F. Scott Fitzgerald.

this side of paradise by fitzgeraldThe dust jacket of any Fitzgerald first edition is key to its value. In the 1920s, publishers had only been making dust jackets for a short time. Readers often pulled them off and threw them away. Prior to the advent of the dust jacket, books were stamped with the title and author and often embellished with beautiful designs and gold stamped accents. The new dust jackets promoted the book, protected it, and advertised other books from the publisher. Because of this change in book design, it is very hard to find one of the 3,000 first printings of “This Side of Paradise”—a debut by a relatively unknown author—with the dust jacket present and in good condition. The era before climate control also did nothing to help preserve books.

If one is lucky enough to find a signed first edition—with the elusive dust jacket—and have the funds to call it your own, it would likely run in the six digits. That’s way beyond the budget of most collectors but these rare books and manuscripts of Fitzgerald provide the perfect impetus for one of the country’s favorite writers, John Grisham.

“The Outlaw Years” by Robert M. Coates

According to Welty’s biographer Suzanne Marrs, it was a member of the Night-Blooming Cereus Club –Welty’s close group of friends who gathered to witness the night-blooming flower and enjoy one another’s company—who suggested that Welty read “The Outlaw Years” by Robert M. Coates. Welty was so affected by Coates’s harrowing stories of the Natchez Trace that she was inspired to write “The Wide Net” and “The Robber Bridegroom.”

outlaw years BKCL FE 11.15“The Outlaw Years” is a riveting read, the story of the murderous land pirates of the Natchez Trace. Originally a maze of animal migration routes later adapted for use by Native Americans, the Trace was eventually adopted by white traders and settlers migrating South. Thieves and murderers saw this population as an easy target.

Even today, Coates brings the history of the Natchez Trace land prates to life. While “Outlaw Years” may not be the most accurate history of the Trace, Coates reveals the mood and atmosphere of the 1800s. Many versions of the blood-thirsty Harpe brothers existed and Coates simply chose descriptions which made sense to him. In his defense, Coates rescued many old histories and travelogues from complete obscurity by retelling the stories of the Natchez Trace land pirates.

outlaw years FE woodcutCoates’ list of sources are as equally intriguing as the entire book: Fulkerson’s “Early Days in Mississippi” (1885) is cited as an “excellent book of gossip”; “Ashe’s Travels in America” (1808) is noted as a “very interesting chronicle of an astonished Englishman, on a trip down to the Mississippi”; and Rothert’s “The Outlaws of Cave-in-Rock” (1924) is credited as a major source for the book.

outlaw years FE 11.15Any Mississippi bookcase would not be complete without “The Outlaw Years.” First editions are embellished with illustrations and beautiful maps on the end papers. For collectors, note that there is a book club edition also published in 1930 through the Literary Guild of America. The true first edition is published in 1930 by the Macaulay Company. However, both of these editions are desirable as “The Outlaw Years” is out of print today.

Written by Lisa Newman, Original to The Clarion-Ledger. 

Author Q&A with Ed Tarkington

Original to the Clarion-Ledger. By Jana Hoops.

JacketNashville English teacher and wrestling coach Ed Tarkington releases his debut novel this month, “Only Love Can Break Your Heart,” after taking a circuitous route to add the title of “novelist” to his career accomplishments.

A distant cousin to Booth Tarkington, a best-selling literary novelist through the first half of the 20th century, the contemporary Tarkington says the memory of “Cousin Booth’s success left my father under the delusion that writing was a practical career choice. So I was never properly discouraged.”

Along the way, he earned a BA from Furman University, an MA from the University of Virginia and PhD from the Graduate Creative Writing Program at Florida State.

Tarkington’s formative years in Virginia shaped his early memories.

“I was born in Lynchburg, Virginia — not Lynchburg, Tennessee, the home of Jack Daniel’s whiskey, but, rather, of Jerry Falwell’s Old Time Gospel Hour. I grew up on the other side of town among the hypocrites and the sinners, also known as Presbyterians and Episcopalians.”

His career path to becoming a published author did not have a smooth start, he admits.

“Like a lot of young would-be writers, I floundered for a while,” he said. “I spent one year on a residential framing crew and the next teaching English at a small school in North Carolina, which I loved, but I wasn’t getting much writing done. I went to grad school at the University of Virginia to study literary theory, but scholarly life didn’t agree with me, so I ran off to Colorado to play at being Jack Kerouac. Eventually, I went back to school, enrolling in the Graduate Creative Writing program at Florida State.

“I fell in love, got married, started a family, and migrated to Nashville, where I now live, teaching and coaching, watching my little girls grow.”

A frequent contributor to Chapter16.org, Tarkington’s articles, essays and stories have appeared in Nashville Scene, Memphis Commercial Appeal, Post Road, the Pittsburgh Quarterly, the Southeast Review and elsewhere.

How did you become interested in language and writing?

I had many wonderful teachers growing up, but, eventually, in high school, I had two who really influenced me in a transformative way: a really ambitious and successful theater director named Jim Ackley, and Patty Worsham, my AP English teacher, who is still pretty much my hero. Patty taught me to love Shakespeare and Yeats. She also encouraged me to write and helped me discover contemporary writers like John Irving, who, being both a writer and a wrestler, really inspired me. Jim made us all feel like we were good enough to be professionals; our advanced acting class wrote a play our senior year, and that experience made me think, “man, you can do this.”

Please tell me about the kinds of works you’ve had published in other media.

When I was in graduate school, I spent a lot of time writing stories and sending them out to little journals, with little success. I took a brief stab at freelance magazine writing and flopped royally. So I decided to stick to teaching and novel writing and just hope for the best.

About a year after I moved to Nashville, Margaret Renkl, who is a really brilliant writer and editor here, had been hired by Humanities Tennessee to start up an online publication supporting Tennessee authors and book culture. Margaret was looking for contributors to the website, which they decided to call Chapter 16, because Tennessee was the 16th state to join the Union. Margaret asked me if I wanted to write essays and reviews for the website, and informed me that she would be paying for content. “Free book and a check?” I thought. “I’m in!”

I had no idea at the time that Chapter 16 would introduce me to this thriving literary community in Nashville revolving around Humanities Tennessee, the Southern Festival of Books, the Nashville Public Library and eventually, Parnassus Books. I got to connect with a lot of other writers and also get a byline in a number of different regional publications.

Is “Only Love Can Break Your Heart” your first novel? Tell me briefly about the story line.

“Only Love Can Break Your Heart” is my publishing debut, but not my first novel. I wrote another before, which was sort of a Cormac McCarthy, Robert Stone-type, a Southwestern noir. I worked on that book for seven years and had great hopes for it, but it didn’t sell.

By that time, I had been teaching high school and coaching for about four years. My life had gotten pretty tame; I had a hard time seeing my way back into the kind of world I’d spent the previous decade thinking and writing about. So I went back to my central Virginia childhood, drawing on memories and stories I’d collected over the years.

The narrator, Rocky, is a kid growing up in the small town South. He has an older half-brother, Paul, who is kind of the classic rebel-without-a-cause. Young Rocky idolizes Paul but doesn’t really grasp how troubled he is until Paul pulls a very cruel and vengeful stunt to lash out at their father and then disappears. Rocky’s childhood becomes defined by the absence of his beloved brother and by his involvement with Leigh Bowman, Paul’s ex-girlfriend, and with his new neighbors, who have an older daughter who sort of seduces young Rocky. Years after Paul’s disappearance, a grisly double-murder forces Rocky into a reckoning with the past and the present.

What inspired you to create this story? Is any of it influenced by any real-life occurrences in your life?

The primary relationship in the novel is between Rocky, the narrator, and his older half-brother, Paul. I don’t have a brother, but I do have a much older half-sister whose life has been utterly thwarted by mental illness. The pain and confusion I have always felt about what my half-sister’s illness did to her has haunted me for as long as I can remember. But I didn’t want to write a memoir or attempt in any way to “tell the truth;” I have neither the courage nor the authority to do so. So I turned my half-sister into a brother — Paul — and invented a narrator who is both at once the better and the worst parts of myself. I wanted to duplicate the feeling of growing up in the small-town South of the late ’70s and early ’80s, in a family that was both typical and strange, as most families tend to be below the surface.

The title of the book, according to the story, is a nod to Neil Young’s 1970 song of the same name. Was the story inspired in any way by the song, or was there any other connection?

When I first started imagining the characters and their personalities, I was listening to this music to help me find the mood and sensibility I was going for, and I just pictured Paul as a guy who idolized Neil Young. As I imagined him, Paul dealt with the pain of his dysfunctional childhood by identifying with Neil Young — or his idea, constructed from his music and his image, of what Neil Young was like.

As for the title — it just came sort of serendipitously. I was struggling to figure out what to call the book. Then one day I was driving to work listening to After the Gold Rush and “Only Love Can Break Your Heart” came on, and I just thought, “Eureka! That’s it.” I hope if Neil ever hears about this novelist stealing his song title, he will take it as the gesture of admiration it’s meant to be.

How would you describe your writing?

My favorite writers are the ones whose styles are very fluent and inviting. I work hard to make the language both pleasing and natural — lyrical, but also accessible.

As a high school English teacher, class sponsor, literary magazine sponsor and wresting coach — not to mention a husband and father — how do you have time to fit writing into your busy schedule?

Early to bed, early to rise. And I mean early.

What approach do you take in teaching your students to write? What do you encourage them to do or not do?

I try to train my students to write as if they’re writing for a general audience instead of for a teacher. I want them to think about what it takes to catch and hold someone’s interest in the Information Age, when there are so many forms of content competing for our attention.

635882161581103169-Tarkington-Ed-c-Glen-Rose

Author Ed Tarkington (Photo: Glen Rose/Special to The Clarion-Ledger)

Do you have other works already planned — or that you hope to be planned — for future release? In what genre?

I am hard at work on another novel. I expect to have a draft finished by the end of the year. While it is very different from “Only Love Can Break Your Heart,” it’s written with the same kind of style and sensibility and will hopefully appeal to the same audience.

 

 

Ed Tarkington will sign copies of “Only Love Can Break Your Heart” at 5 p.m. Thursday at Lemuria Books in Jackson.

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2015, I’d like to kiss you on the mouth.

dbdb37f2-a00d-4114-b5d6-1e42a0bc65cfThis year was a doozy. I consumed everything from nonfiction about animal consciousness to the modern classic Fates and Furies by Lemuria’s new best friend, Lauren Groff. I can’t even get into the second paragraph without telling you that The Godfather was hands down my favorite read of the year. You can read my blog about it here. I had the chance to sit down and talk to Garth Risk Hallberg about his meteoric rise in the literary world. Jon Meacham made me cry.

I personally made the move from the hub that is Lemuria’s front desk to the quieter fiction room, where I now am elbows deep in the mechanics of our First Editions Club; and am coincidentally even more in love with fiction than I was before. My TBR pile has skyrocketed from about 10 books to roughly 30 on my bedside table. It’s getting out of control and I love it.

[Sidebar: This year, I fell even more in love with graphic novelsNimona surprised us all by making one of the short-lists for the National Book Award, and we were so pleased to see it get the recognition that it deserves. Go Noelle Stevenson! You rule!]

As a bookstore, we were able to be on the forefront of some of the most influential books of 2015 (see: Between the World and Me– when we passed that advance reader copy around, the rumblings were already beginning). Literary giants Salman Rushdie, John Irving, and Harper Lee put out new/very, very old works to (mostly) thunderous applause, and debut novelists absolutely stunned and shook up the book world. (My Sunshine Away, anyone? I have never seen the entire staff band behind a book like that before. We were/are obsessed.) Kent Haruf’s last book was published; it was perfect, and our hearts ache in his absence.

We marched through another Christmas, wrapping and reading and recommending and eating enough cookies to make us sick. We hired fresh new faces, we said goodbye to old friends, we cleaned up scraggly, hairy sections of the store and made them shiny and new. We had the privilege of having a hand in Mississippi’s first ever book festival. We heaved in the GIANT new Annie Leibovitz book, and spent a few days putting off work so that we could all flip through it. In short, this year has been anything but uneventful; it’s been an adventure. So here’s to 2016 absolutely knocking 2015 out of the park.

Read on, guys.

 

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Collecting Ellen Gilchrist

“In the Land of Dreamy Dreams” by Ellen Gilchrist. Fayetteville, AR: University of Arkansas Press, 1981.

unnamedEllen Gilchrist, a native of Vicksburg, Mississippi, had spent six years devoted to the craft of poetry when she began writing short stories. She published her first collection of poetry, “The Land Surveyor’s Daughter,” in 1979. In “The Writing Life,” she recalls learning “how to polish and edit poetry until it shone like a mirror” and she applied that skill to short story writing. Gilchrist composed her first story, “In the Land of Dreamy Dreams,” under the guidance of her teacher Bill Harrison at the University of Arkansas where she would later teach. The rest of the stories would be written in New Orleans; Gilchrist describes that time in “The Writing Life”: “I was in one of the spells that artists all know can happen. I knew what I wanted to write about and I just sat down and wrote it.”

Gilchrist sent the stories to Harrison one by one for feedback. Besides writing suggestions, he offered up his literary agent in New York. While many writers would have jumped at the chance, Gilchrist “didn’t want any strangers in New York judging [her] work” and took an offer from the University of Arkansas Press in 1981. The small press was looking for a lead fiction writer and Gilchrist was the perfect fit, but no one could have predicted that her first collection of short stories, titled “In the Land of Dreamy Dreams,” would sell 10,000 copies in the first week and would be reprinted seven times.

“In the Land of Dreamy Dreams” launched Ellen Gilchrist’s literary career and soon she was ready to accept a contract from Little Brown. First editions of “Dreamy Dreams” are difficult to come by but for collectors this debut work featuring the artwork of Ginny Stanford is prized.

Original to the Clarion-­Ledger.

See more Ellen Gilchrist first editions here.

In ‘Free State,’ notions of equality emerge from behind a black mask

Tom Piazza will be at the Eudora Welty House TONIGHT at 5:00 to sign and read from “A Free State”.

By Jim Ewing. Special to The Clarion-Ledger

WFES062284129-2Tom Piazza’s “Free State” offers a fascinating study on the nature of freedom in the guise of a thought-provoking novel.

Set in the years before the Civil War, “Free State” focuses on the chance coming together of a black man, who calls himself Henry Sims, and a white man, who calls himself James Douglass. Both are assumed names by characters seeking freedom and a new identity from the lives they were born into and their grim pasts.

Douglass is of Irish descent, the youngest son of a Pennsylvania farmer who chafed under the grueling chores of farm life and the physical abuse of his father and older brothers. He seeks freedom by joining a traveling circus and becomes enthralled by the burgeoning fad of minstrelsy — traveling troupes of musicians who adopt a grotesque rendition of Old South plantation life by performing in black face, or covering their faces with burnt cork. He rises in his musical ability and forms his own minstrel group in Philadelphia, Penn., a free state, which in America, it turns out, is not so free.

But it’s all theater, a masquerade, set for public consumption amidst an imagined tapestry of faux aristocratic plantation owners bemused by the “jollity” of enslaved blacks happily entertaining for their masters. Only the beauty of the music is real.

Why minstrelsy? “The practice of ‘blacking up’ had spread … to feed a hunger that had gone unrecognized until then,” Douglass reminisces. “ In it, we — everyone, it seemed— encountered a freedom that could be found there and there only. As if day-to-day life were a dull slog under gray skies, and the minstrels launched one into the empyrean blue.”

“When I first heard the minstrels,” he recalls, “…I felt as if I had been freed from a life of oppressive servitude.”

Thus, a white man finds freedom by impersonating a black slave.

Douglass’ façade meets horrific reality when he meets Sims, a runaway slave from Virginia, seeking to escape his master father and a slave hunter, Tull Burton, he has hired to track him down. Burton is evil incarnate, a fascinating study of the devil in human flesh, who delights in the torture of those he seeks. Like the society that imposes slavery and inequality even under the guise of democracy and commitment to human freedom, he is unrelenting and devoted to his cause of using the law to brutally enforce the codes of human bondage.

The story itself is absorbing as Douglass and Sims forge a tenuous bond and adopt a rational solution to both of their problems. Sims and Douglass attempt to pursue their love of music while supporting themselves in a world that twists notions of life and livelihood along the lines of race.

Their solution — for Sims, a black man, to assume black face in order to evade laws barring black people from public performance — exposes the theater of the absurd that was the antebellum South. In it, a white man could find freedom only by pretending to black; a black man could only find freedom by masking that he was black by pretending to be black.

The truth of this preposterous state of “freedom” finds echoes today as American society still struggles with issues of race and equality. The true face behind the mask is that the world limits freedom and equality no matter how devoted and pure one’s intention and desires may be, and that we all play out our roles in often absurd conditions to pursue a free state.

It’s an absorbing tale and a parable that exposes the incongruities of living in a democracy still colored by inequality.

 

Jim Ewing, a former writer and editor at The Clarion-Ledger, is the author of seven books including Redefining Manhood: A Guide for Men and Those Who Love Them, now in bookstores.

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