Author Archives: uwpress.wisc.edu

Oh yah, that’s Yooper talk

Today the University of Wisconsin Press publishes Yooper Talk: Dialect as Identity in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Author Kathryn Remlinger explores features of this unique North American dialect while examining why dialects persist even in a globalized age.

The remote and isolated location of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, combined with contact among English and other languages, have shaped Yooper talk over the past 150 years and have helped it remain distinct from other varieties of American English. It is shaped by tourism, economics, the sociolinguistic history of the Upper Peninsula, research on regional varieties, awareness about language variation, and how speakers claim identity with language.

Figure 1: Bjorklund-Ollila Strawberry Harvest at Heinola Finnish Immigrant Agricultural Community near Oskar Bay in Houghton County ca1920. Used by permission from Finlandia University’s Finnish American Historical Archives Collections

If there is a definitive Yooper dialect, why don’t all Yoopers sound the same?

Figure 2: Map of Michigan and Research Area, University of Wisconsin Press

Although there is a recognizable way of speaking American English in the Upper Peninsula, there is not just one standard UP dialect. There are many ways of speaking in the UP due to diverse factors including socioeconomic class, social relationships and activities, gender, age, first language, education, and occupation. Furthermore, many of the stereotypical features of “Yooper” are found throughout the Upper Midwest, including northern Wisconsin and Minnesota, and even in other parts of the United States and Canada, including Pennsylvania, Louisiana, Ohio, and southern Ontario. Residents, natives, tourists, and linguists have created the perception that there is one specific way of speaking in the Upper Peninsula. Typically this idea is based on a few limited linguistic features, but, if we listen to our neighbors, friends, and relatives who live in the UP, we’ll hear a cacophony of voices, each one claiming its place on the dialect map.

Figure 3: Welcome to Yooperland sign at Da Yoopers Tourist Trap, Ishpeming, photo by Kathryn Remlinger

But what about TV, radio, and other media? Aren’t they wiping out regional dialects?

Although we may learn new words and expressions from various media, media typically does not affect the ways we use language beyond temporarily adding to our vocabulary. Language variation and change can only happen through face-to-face interaction, while TV, radio, the Web, and other media lack that connection. However, regional dialects are far from static.

 

Figure 4: Say ya to da up, eh! bumper sticker, created by Jack Bowers, photo by Kathryn Remlinger

But why do these distinct varieties still exist with all the moving around that people do?

In part, distinctions exist because of the isolation and remoteness of certain areas. The Upper Peninsula is a good example of this, as its location limits the amount of contact speakers have with others. Thus we can hear certain features of the local dialect persisting, such as ya, da, eh, and the pronunciation of sauna as “sow-na.”

It’s not just geographic boundaries that influence local speech; cultural differences affect language variation, too. Our worldview is reflected in the language we use and how we use it. However, this claim comes with a cautionary note: language, particularly vocabulary, can reflect the beliefs and worldview of a group of people, and learning other languages is one way in which people develop different perspectives on the world. Yet, language does not determine our worldview, nor does culture determine the structure and use of our language. They are merely reflections of each other. For example, it’s commonly believed that people living in snowy regions have more words for snow than do speakers in tropical climates. While this might be true given the individual cultures and a community’s everyday practices, the number of words depends on how those words are put together and what counts as a “word.” Also, just because a language has no word for snow, this does not mean that its speakers can’t understand what snow is or create a word in their language for it.

Just because a language has no word for snow, this does not mean that its speakers can’t understand what snow is. Click To Tweet

Figure 5: Sauna insurance sign, photo by Kathryn Remlinger

Another factor that affects the longevity of dialects are the meanings and values we attach to them. For example, we often tend to think of someone who speaks with a regional accent as more honest, loyal, and kind. This positive perception is linked to the idea that the “best” speakers of a dialect are typically seen as the most “authentic” locals. Tied to this sense of authenticity is the most compelling reason for the maintenance of dialect differences: identity. Our language is one of the most obvious ways in which we mark who we are, where we’re from, and where we’ve been. This includes not only our region but also our social class, gender, age, ethnicity, education, and other ways in which we categorize ourselves culturally and socially. As the linguistic landscape shrinks through our online and geographic interconnectedness, language remains our badge of identity.

The most compelling reason for the maintenance of dialect differences is identity. Click To Tweet

Kathryn A. Remlinger is a professor of English: Linguistics at Grand Valley State University in Allendale, Michigan.

The History of Terrorism is Written in Blood

Today the University of Wisconsin Press releases Written in Blood: Revolutionary Terrorism and Russian Literary Culture, 1861–1881. Author Lynn Patyk reveals the spark hidden in Russian literature that ignited terrorism across history.

Another day, another attack. Somewhere in the world, a suicide bomber kills himself and countless others at a teeming market, in a subway car, at a pop concert. Terrorism seems so fundamentally a part of our reality and so numbingly endless that it is hard to imagine that it has a history, or that this history may even be told in the heroic mode. But, in fact, historians have traditionally credited Russian revolutionaries of the mid-nineteenth century—or “Nihilists” as they were called—with the invention of terrorism, which they deployed in their struggle with Russian autocracy. While the means (systematic political assassination) were morally odious, a significant segment of progressive public opinion in Russia and abroad could endorse the terrorists’ ends: the overthrow of tyranny and the introduction of Western-style freedoms.
In the case of nineteenth-century Russia, terrorism had a very particular and powerful impetus: the literary imagination. Writers in Russia served as social critics, moral authorities, visionaries, and prophets. As Russia underwent a wrenching transformation from a feudal society founded on serf labor to a modern industrializing society, literature undertook to portray new kinds of characters befitting the new reality: “men of action” in both literature and life. The necessary result in a largely untransformed and repressive political system was that this active hero would look remarkably like the modern terrorist.
19th century Russian literature's active hero, stifled by a repressive regime, anticipates the modern terrorist. Click To Tweet
Of Russia’s great realist novelists, Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821–1881) was uniquely positioned to observe and contribute to this phenomenon. Dostoevsky had himself been involved in political conspiracy, sentenced to death, and reprieved at the last moment, only to spend ten years in exile and hard labor in Siberia. These experiences gave him acute insight into tensions between the individual personality and any entity or system that tried to limit the expression of its free will, and thus into individual political violence as an emergent phenomenon.
If Dostoevsky’s novels, and in particular his terrorism trilogy of the 1860s–1880s (Crime and Punishment, Demons, and Brothers Karamazov), remain today so vitally relevant, it is because he recognized that these tensions were not peculiar to Russia and that the modern self was intrinsically terroristic. The modern self, bent on autonomy and self-realization, strains against all limitations—moral, political, religious, and aesthetic—and recognizes only itself as the highest, sovereign authority.
In the epilogue of Crime and Punishment, Dostoevsky’s hero Rodion Raskolnikov has a terrifying nightmare: individuals and entire societies are infected with “trichinae,” causing them to fall prey to an unshakable self-righteousness and inevitably leading to mutual incomprehension, hatred, and a war of all against all. Dostoevsky clearly conceived this as a pathology of Western modernity, the irony being that it could just as easily manifest in the form of anti-modern ideologies (as in Dostoevsky’s case).
The modern self, bent on autonomy and self-realization, strains against all limitations. Click To Tweet
Despite his misgivings about the trajectory of modernity and the extreme individualism that it fostered, Dostoevsky rejected any external systematic constraints on freedom as a slippery slope to despotism and hegemonic state terror. When we lament the ineradicable evil that terrorism seems to be, Dostoevsky would have us recall that it is not a meaningless evil, but a profoundly meaningful one. It derives from the unprecedented freedom of modern societies, which empower individuals for maximum good or maximum harm. But this freedom has not yet given rise to a consciousness of our own individual and collective responsibility for pain and suffering in the world, which Dostoevsky saw as the key to staunching the bleeding wound that is terrorism. Instead of children at a concert, they (“the terrorists”) see “enemies.” Instead of our own culpability for violence and suffering, we see them as evil personified.

Lynn Ellen Patyk is an assistant professor of Russian at Dartmouth College.

Researching Facts While Writing Fiction

The University of Wisconsin Press is pleased to release a paperback edition of Death at Gills Rock, the second Dave Cubiak Door County Mystery. Three local World War II veterans about to be honored for their military heroics die from carbon monoxide poisoning during a weekly card game. A faulty heater is blamed, but Cubiak puzzles over details. In this post, author Patricia Skalka does some puzzling of her own over how best to undertake research for a mystery.

One of the most unexpected aspects of writing a mystery is the amount of varied research needed to fill out a story. When I worked as a freelancer and Reader’s Digest staff writer, research was an essential element in nearly every assignment. Once I started writing mysteries, I thought that part of the job was behind me. But I was wrong.

Death at Gills Rock, the second volume in the Dave Cubiak Door County mysteries, is a good example. I knew that I wanted to write a story involving childhood friends who had served together in World War II, but wasn’t sure how to proceed. When a Door County neighbor told me that recruits to the Sturgeon Bay Coast Guard Contingent were posted in the Aleutian Islands, I had my first lead.

However, at that point, I knew little about the Coast Guard, less about the Aleutian Islands, and virtually nothing about how either factored into the war. To create a credible story, I had to ferret out specific historical details and background material that spanned decades. To start, I interviewed the head of the Sturgeon Bay Coast Guard Station, hunted through library catalogs, and searched the internet. Much of the information I needed was buried in out-of-print history books, old military newsletters, and obscure magazine articles. The material was fascinating. The more I read, the more I wanted to learn. Finally, I had to stop researching and start writing!

I knew from experience that only a portion of what I learned would make its way into the novel. After all, I was writing a mystery story, not a history book. Difficult decisions had to be made. I could use only what added to the story itself, but even what I couldn’t include in the book stays with me and is worth sharing.

Even what I couldn’t include in the book stays with me and is worth sharing. Click To Tweet

Let’s start with the U.S. Coast Guard. This division of the U.S. military was established in 1790 as the Revenue Cutter Service and remains the nation’s longest extant military branch. From 1794 to 1865, the Coast Guard’s primary function was to stop slave ships and prevent them from reaching American shores. Under the Timber Act of 1822, it was also charged with the task of protecting government forests from poachers!

Fast forward to World War II and the Aleutian Islands, an archipelago that extends a thousand miles west from the coast of Alaska. It’s location made the island critical after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. By 1942, the Japanese had captured two small islands in the long chain—the first time since the War of 1812 that a foreign army occupied US territory. The Japanese wanted control of the Aleutians to prevent a possible U.S. attack across the Northern Pacific; while the Americans feared that the Japanese could use them to launch an assault on the West Coast. The Aleutian campaign also had a secret mission to train American naval forces for a possible invasion of Japan; this was not revealed until after the war.

In Death at Gills Rock, I refer to the battle of Attu, an eighteen-day siege in which U.S. forces recaptured the island as part of the U.S. campaign to oust the Japanese. What’s not mentioned is that the battle was one of the most costly assaults in the Pacific: for every one hundred enemy combatants found on the island, about seventy-one Americans were killed or wounded.

In gathering material for Death at Gills Rock, I also expanded my knowledge about societal norms and learned the specifics of raising puppies and outfitting a wooden sailboat—subjects I knew little or nothing of before I started the project.

Research may not be easy, but it is rewarding. I hope that by weaving facts into my mysteries, I provide readers with a more satisfying and substantial experience. Certainly, taking the time to get things correct makes me a better writer.
Taking the time to get things correct makes me a better writer. Click To Tweet

Photo by B. E. Pinkham

Patricia Skalka is a former freelance staff writer for Reader’s Digest specializing in medical and human interest stories. She has worked as a magazine editor, ghost writer, and writing instructor. A native of Chicago, she divides her time between the city and her cottage in Door County, Wisconsin.

The Dave Cubiak Door County Mystery Series so far

Next book coming 2018!

New books in May 2017

We are pleased to announce six new books to be published in May.

May 9, 2017
WHISPERS OF CRUEL WRONGS
The Correspondence of Louisa Jacobs and Her Circle, 1879-1911
Edited by Mary Maillard

Louisa Jacobs was the daughter of Harriet Jacobs, author of the famous autobiography Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. That work included a heartbreaking account of Harriet parting with six-year-old Louisa, taken away to the North by her white father. Now, rediscovered letters reveal the lives of Louisa and her circle and shed light on Harriet’s old age.

“A rich and fascinating portrait of Philadelphia’s and Washington D.C.’s black elite after the Civil War. Even as the letters depict the increasingly troubled political status and economic fortunes of the correspondents, they offer rare glimpses into private homes and inner emotions.”—Carla L. Peterson,author of Black Gotham

Wisconsin Studies in Autobiography
William L. Andrews, Series Editor

May 16, 2017
TO OFFER COMPASSION
A History of the Clergy Consultation Service on Abortion
Doris Andrea Dirks and Patricia A. Relf

“Conservative Christianity has become synonymous with opposition to abortion, but before the 1973 Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision that legalized it in the U.S., clergy organized to protect pregnant women and direct them to safe abortions. Dirks and Relf explore this extraordinary and little-known history through detailed first-person interviews and extensive research with Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish clergy who, between 1967 and 1973, created a pregnancy counseling service and national underground network to provide women with options for adoption, parenting assistance, and pregnancy termination. . . . Critically important social history that too many in today’s abortion wars have never known or chosen to forget.”—Publishers Weekly, starred review

 

May 23, 2017
SPIRIT CHILDREN
Illness, Poverty, and Infanticide in Northern Ghana
Aaron R. Denham

“A brilliant, sensitive, and moving book about the heartbreaking phenomenon of infanticide. This is a book to be taken seriously by hospital personnel, public health policymakers, NGO workers, and anyone interested in the fate of the world’s most vulnerable young children.”—Alma Gottlieb, coauthor of A World of Babies

“A skillful ethnography of the spirit child phenomenon in northern Ghana—children who fail to thrive, are feared to harm their families, and therefore should be ‘sent back.’ This insightful, theoretically rich analysis offers a nuanced ecological, economic, and cultural explanation of maternal attachment.”—John M. Janzen, author of The Quest for Therapy in Lower Zaire

Africa and the Diaspora: History, Politics, Culture
Thomas Spear, Neil Kodesh, Tejumola Olaniyan, Michael G. Schatzberg, and James H. Sweet, Series Editors

 

May 23, 2017
THE LAND REMEMBERS

The Story of a Farm and Its People  9th Edition
Ben Logan
With an introduction by Curt Meine

“Ben Logan is strikingly successful in recalling his own boyhood world, a lonely ridge farm in southwestern Wisconsin. . . . He reviews his growing-up years in the 1920s and ’30s less with nostalgia than with a naturalist’s eye for detail, wary of the distortions of memory and sentiment.”—Christian Science Monitor

“A book to be cherished and remembered.”—Publishers Weekly

 

 

May 30, 2017
PINERY BOYS
Songs and Songcatching in the Lumberjack Era
Edited by Franz Rickaby with Gretchen Dykstra and James P. Leary

As the heyday of the lumber camps faded, a young scholar named Franz Rickaby set out to find songs from shanty boys, river drivers, and sawmill hands in the Upper Midwest. Pinery Boys now incorporates, commemorates, contextualizes, and complements Rickaby’s 1926 book. It includes annotations throughout by folklore scholar James P. Leary and an engaging biography by Rickaby’s granddaughter Gretchen Dykstra. Central to this edition are the fifty-one songs that Rickaby originally published, plus fourteen additional songs selected to represent the

Franz Rickaby

varied collecting Rickaby did beyond the lumber camps.

“[Rickaby] was the first to put the singing lumberjack into an adequate record and was of pioneering stuff. … His book renders the big woods, not with bizarre hokum and studied claptrap … but with the fidelity of an unimpeachable witness.”—Carl Sandburg

Languages and Folklore of the Upper Midwest Series
Joseph Salmons and James P. Leary, Series Editors

 

May 23, 2017
The second book in the Dave Cubiak Door County Mystery Series
DEATH AT GILLS ROCK
Patricia Skalka

“In her atmospheric, tightly written sequel, Skalka vividly captures the beauty of a remote Wisconsin peninsula that will attract readers of regional mysteries. Also recommended for fans of William Kent Krueger, Nevada Barr, and Mary Logue.”
Library Journal, starred review

“Three World War II heroes about to be honored by the Coast Guard are all found dead, apparent victims of carbon monoxide poisoning while playing cards at a cabin. . . . The second installment of this first-rate series (Death Stalks Door County, 2014) provides plenty of challenges for both the detective and the reader.”Kirkus Reviews

“Skalka captures the . . . small-town atmosphere vividly, and her intricate plot and well-developed characters will appeal to fans of William Kent Krueger.”Booklist

The Search for My Spirit Sister

A guest post by Sara Rath. Her new book Seven Years of Grace: The Inspired Mission of Achsa W. Sprague is published by the Vermont Historical Society. (It is distributed by the University of Wisconsin Press.)

Rath-7-years-of-Grace-cWhen you write someone’s biography, it’s like assembling a puzzle. But if that person lived in the mid-nineteenth century, you can’t simply dump all the pieces out on the table and begin connecting them. Instead, you sort out the few odd pieces that you have. Then you search for the rest.

But . . . what if someone has slightly altered the few available pieces, smoothed the corners to fit his own moral doctrine?  And what if there are empty spaces, missing parts you can’t find?  The story of Achsa Sprague posed these dilemmas from the start.


Lily Dale is a Spiritualist community in upstate New York, and that’s where I first saw Achsa mentioned in a book that had been loaned to me. A footnote revealed “The Achsa W. Sprague Papers held by the Vermont Historical Society are, as far as I can ascertain, the only extant personal papers of a nineteenth century Spiritualist medium.” I was intrigued.

I purchased my own copy of the book and tore out the page with Achsa’s portrait—it’s also on the cover of Seven Years of Grace—and pinned it above my desk. There was something about her eyes, that steady, almost defiant gaze that challenged me to dare to look away.

Her enigmatic stare was appealing, and I felt similarities between us. Achsa was from Vermont. I had earned my MFA in Writing at Vermont College in Montpelier, and taught in the Goddard College MFA program at Plainfield. Achsa wrote poetry and I’d already published four books of poems. She was a missionary; that had been my childhood dream. I was intrigued by Spiritualism (I’d been enrolled in the Lily Dale workshop “The Personal Development of Mediumship,”) and we were both feminists, day-dreamers, progressives. She’d kept a daily journal, and I’d kept one since 1962. I was also a biographer and sensed there was an untold story hiding behind Achsa’s gaze.

I wanted to plunge into research right away, but I was in the midst of writing other books. My enthusiasm for Achsa would have to be sustained for a year or two, I thought. In July of 2000, I returned to Vermont, ready for work. I had already studied a published version of Achsa’s diaries. The originals had been purchased in the late 1930s at a Rutland bookstore by Leonard Twinem who, in 1941, offered an edited version for publication in The Proceedings of the Vermont Historical Society under his pseudonym, Leonard Twynham. Achsa’s entries began on June 1, 1849, “Once more I am unable to walk or do anything else; have not been a step without crutches since Sunday and see no prospect of being any better; see nothing before me but a life of miserable helplessness.” On her birthday, November 17, she wrote of her disillusionment:  “Twenty-two years ago today, a new life sprung into existence; the earth received a new inhabitant; a spirit clothed in the garments of mortality. . . . And this is my destiny, mine. My own sad history.”

Twinem’s cunning edits drove me crazy. After “my own sad history,” he followed with an ellipsis (indicating sentences deleted) and then, “Mr. Woods people want me to teach school there this winter, but don’t think I shall.”  Achsa’s rebirth was suddenly revealed in 1853 when “After a long, almost a three years silence again I unfold these pages, once more to trace upon their surface the thoughts of a long-tried heart.”  A miraculous transformation had occurred (had Twinem omitted that part?): Angel guardians had cured Achsa and obtained her promise to spread the word of Spiritualism and the fact that we do not die.

I found Achsa’s grave at the Plymouth Notch cemetery. The words “I Still Live” carved on her blue marble tombstone were nearly hidden by weather stains and spreading lichens. I realized that, by writing her biography, I could help Achsa still live.


 

I hired a fellow Vermont College MFA grad, Caroline Mercurio, to join me in viewing the extensive collection of Achsa Sprague materials in the Vermont Historical Society archives. There were so many letters sent to Achsa, all written with quill pens and difficult to decipher. Caroline photocopied each letter and sent packets to me throughout the next year. I received each thick envelope with the excitement of a child at Christmas, requiring months of quiet to painstakingly read and transcribe each. An important breakthrough occurred when Caroline noted that letters on blue stationery from a John Crawford stood out from the rest. When I placed all the Crawford letters in chronological order, an unforeseen dimension was evident: until that moment, no one had known of the intense romantic relationship that Achsa developed with this wealthy, erudite man whom she called her “Evil Genius.” Achsa’s correspondence with him was frequently quoted in his passionate replies, so the provocative exchange between the two was unmistakable: another clue in her untold story.

There were other challenges in the archival files: scraps of paper with no attributions, rough drafts of letters, even a note in mirror writing. From the abridged diaries, newspaper columns, letters, and disparate notes, I began to trace Achsa’s travels and emotions. A posthumous collection of her poetry, The Poet and Other Poems published in 1864, also contained a play with a character called “Miss Raymond.” Unmistakably Achsa, she was an improvisatrice with similar physical attributes and mystical powers.

Not unlike others, modest in her guise,

A soul of goodness beaming from her eyes.

Yet nothing marked to tell the power within,

That, when aroused, so many hearts must win.

She’d mingle in the crowd, and scarce be seen,

With thoughtful face, and modest, graceful mien;

But when her harp is once within her hands,

And rapt, inspired, before the world she stands,

A glow spreads over all her face and brow

Before which others cannot fail to bow. . .

After I returned from Vermont that summer, I was occupied with radio interviews all across the country for another of my books. In my journal, I wrote “The days pass too swiftly and I can’t work fast enough.”  I was still seeking the original Sprague diaries, writing letters and making calls to investigate their location. I spent a week at our rustic lakeside cabin with my husband, and in the silence I thought more about Achsa. “Now I can proceed with Achsa at my own pace with my own creative perspective—trusting, when it feels right, that it is right—and who is alive to contradict me, or question my possible communication with her spirit?”

Achsa and other Spiritualists were fond of quoting poet Alexander Pope, who popularized an optimistic philosophy:

. . . All nature is but art unknown to thee,
All chance, direction which thou canst not see;
All discord, harmony not understood;
All partial evil, universal good;
And, spite of pride, in erring reason’s spite,
One truth is clear, Whatever is, is right.

This became my mantra for the many iterations of Achsa’s manuscript that I produced thereafter: if it felt right, if my intuition captured the essence of her story based my research, then the perspective could be perceived as accurate. (If not, perhaps she’d have me struck by lightning!)


 

In February, 2001, I began a rough draft of the book.  We drove east again that summer.  At Lily Dale, I searched the cluttered library of the National Spiritualist Association of Churches and found a collection of obscure Spiritualist newspapers for which Achsa had written her “By the Wayside” column, opinionated articles, children’s stories and poems. In The Banner of Light I found a first-person account of a friend’s presence at Achsa’s deathbed. On the last day of our visit, I climbed up into the creepy attic to search among bat and mouse droppings for the missing diaries, with no success.

I placed a marble at Achsa’s grave because it reflected my face and the sky. Eliza Ward, who’d been in the original Sprague home prior to its razing, drew for me a floorplan indicating the location of rooms and even the privy. She also gave me a tiny tintype of Achsa as a girl. I visited folks at the Woodstock Historical Society to explore a fascinating record of  Spiritualist activity during Achsa’s time, and we went up to the Rokeby Museum in Ferrisburgh, where Achsa had lectured in 1856.

Without access to Achas’s lost complete diaries, my plan was to interweave the abridged diary with excerpts from letters and articles and my own narrative to tell her story. I had decisions to make about voice, tone, and organization.

A huge breakthrough occurred with my discovery of Spirit History, a website intended to “compile and preserve Nineteenth-Century American Spiritualism’s Fading Records.” This remarkable resource was created by John Buescher, who was then involved with the Voice of America. Although we’ve never met, John became a mentor whose contributions to Achsa’s story were vital, furnishing a depth and breadth that would have been impossible without his scholarship.


 

I had, by then, also become obsessed with Leonard Twinem, a/k/a L. Leonard Twynham.  I was convinced there must be some way to track a museum or a relative who might hold Achsa’s actual diaries, plus additional materials Twinem had crowed about. He’d claimed in the 1941 Proceedings that he was “contemplating the publication of a volume which will include her prose and verse and a long biographical sketch,” as he also possessed “a vast quantity of manuscript material, verses and essays, which await publication. Among her unpublished manuscripts is an autobiographical poem of 162 pages, which she composed in six days, when in such a nervous state that the spinning wheel, latches, and roosters were all muffled for her peace of mind; and also a poetic play of 75 pages dealing with the Biblical story from Eden to Calvary.”

Eccentric and parsimonious to a fault, Twinem told the Vermont Historical Society, “for the work to date I charged only the secretarial costs for transcription; and gave lots of my own time and energy aside from the large amount I originally invested in the box of Sprague items I have in  hand. So I feel my generosity is exhausted. Hence I give nothing away.”

Twinem’s brother Francis donated the box of Sprague correspondence to VHS in 1976, a decade after Leonard’s death, but there had been no other “literary remains” of Achsa Sprague in his possession, and he had no knowledge of them. Paul Carnahan, director of the VHS Library, said that the disappearance of the Sprague diaries and associated papers was one of the great mysteries of Vermont history. They, too, had searched everywhere, and no one in the state had a clue as to their whereabouts.

The diary search began to consume time that I should have spent writing. For example, when visiting a nurse practitioner for an annual appointment, I even mentioned my exasperation to her!  “Nothing happens by accident,” she assured me, and that night she told her friend of my diary quest. She passed along the resulting clairvoyant insights, which I dutifully passed along to Paul:

“I see a red brick building. The building is two stories. It has four steps up to the front door.  The building has 241 associated with it.  That might be a building number or a zip code or something. There may be more numbers but that’s all I get. You go through the door and it’s in the back corner of the room.  It’s a storeroom or something and it isn’t used anymore.  They’re gonna have to dig.  It’s more than just one and they are little books.”

Paul and Caroline then searched the cobwebbed basement of a nearly abandoned building, a warehouse where a bookshelf tipped over, spilling old copies of the 1941 Proceedings booklets. So Achsa’s diaries were there, just not the originals we wanted. Paul had been especially intrigued since 241 was the telephone exchange in the town where the red brick warehouse was located.

Vexed and frustrated, I contacted every archived collection of women’s diaries at colleges and universities in the United States. I wrote to auction houses, antiquarian booksellers in New England, historical societies. Nothing showed up.

Twinem was also a Presbyterian minister, deposed from the ministry in 1938 and restored in 1945 (what happened there?  The Episcopal diocese of New York had no idea but suggested that perhaps he “dumped the Sprague papers before being restored to the Ministry,” and perhaps “his interest in Spiritualism was why he was deposed in the first place.”)

In my exhaustive search, I acquired copies of Twinem correspondence. In a 1937 letter to the American Antiquarian society he commented about a prospective Sprague biography, “the task of assembling the material—sorting and selecting—from a jumble of letters and manuscripts, in preparation of a volume, is enormous.”

I Googled-searched Twinem, then Twynem, and obtained only a bit of useless data from the resulting letters I wrote. I requested a copy of Leonard’s will from the Probate Court of Sharon, Connecticut. A copy of his wife’s will. Nothing. I looked up Twinem’s wife Mary on Ancestry.com and wrote to a woman who’d said Mary lived with their family prior to her death. In fact, her mother had held Mary Twinem in her arms when she died, but only a few scrapbooks of Leonard’s had been in her possession. The Twinems had no descendants and nothing in the scrapbooks related to Achsa.

I finally had to admit I’d struck out.


Working with what I had, I compiled significant timelines: one for Achsa, another for John H. Crawford, and a third for Achsa’s sister, Celia Sprague, who had moved to Fond du Lac County, Wisconsin, in 1853 and eventually married John Steen, a farmer from Oakfield. I hired a genealogist to help with Celia. We found the Avoca cemetery near Oakfield, and Celia’s grave next to that of her husband. Her tombstone had only her first name and this quote from Les Miserables:

“Kiss me on the forehead when I am dead  and I shall feel it.”

Prior to this, Celia’s date of death and location of her passing were unknown.

In 2003 I was awarded the Weston A. Cate Fellowship by the Vermont Historical Society, which helped with costs associated with my research.

On a rainy day in August, 2004, I spoke to a standing-room-only crowd in the Plymouth Notch schoolhouse, where Achsa had taught. With tears in my eyes, I read her poem, Lines Written in a Schoolroom:

“The school-room is deserted now,  

The happy children gone,  

and silence rests upon the spot 

So strangely, sadly lone…” 

The rain let up when we held a short ceremony at her grave, then it started raining again.


It has been twenty years since I first learned about Achsa Sprague. Since then, I’ve published four other books. Between each project, I returned to Achsa. First, I revised a scholarly, footnoted, third-person manuscript from 2004 that now rests in the Vermont Historical Society Archives and contains everything remotely relevant, down to the last painful detail. Next, I tried for a more engaging third-person version. Then I let Achsa tell her story.  First-person was fiction, but it was liberating to let her have her say! Finally I settled on allowing Celia to speak, since many letters from her had been kept in Achsa’s files. Celia’s point-of-view was historical fiction, but I lived in Wisconsin, knew its history and I could “imagine” details of Celia’s life.  In turn, she would be able to depict Achsa with personal details as no one but a sister could. Celia could also help me create missing pieces of the puzzle. She had once told Achsa, “I can now say with the poet “whatever is, is right” so henceforth you may expect me to submit to whatever comes & then do as I best can.”

 

Then the long-sought original Achsa Sprague diaries appeared on eBay in May, 2013.  Where had they been?

The seller said the diaries had been purchased at an auction in New York. “They seemed to be very interesting diaries but once we found out who the author was, then we did think they were special.”

Special? Paul Carnahan declared the diaries invaluable! The two of us offered separate bids each day to acquire them if we possibly could. Alas, the final offers grew far beyond our combined reach. Someone out-bid us for a total of $4,997.00 on May 16, 2013. Attempts to contact the purchaser since then have been for naught.

Seven Years of Grace is based as closely as possible on truths I have been able to acquire, and where there were missing pieces of the puzzle, I endeavored to capture the essence of what most likely transpired.  (“Whatever is, is right.”)

This was scribbled while I sat near Achsa’s grave one afternoon:

“You ask for a poem this is what I give you for its stead you are my voice and being, lightness itself shall guide you out of shadows and give you direction. . . we are sisters we share stories this is my secret and yours, our sorrows are similar and our loves as well. . .”


 

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Sara Rath

Sara Rath’s books published by the University of Wisconsin Press include three novels— Star Lake Saloon & Housekeeping Cottages, Night Sisters, The Waters of Star Lake—and a biography: H. H. Bennett, Photographer: His American Landscape.

Her novel Night Sisters includes scenes at the historic Wocanaga Spiritualist Camp in Wisconsin. See a video interview with Sara about Night Sisters and Wocanaga.

 

New Books in April 2016

We are proud to announce these five books debuting in April.

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Almost Nothing to Be Scared Of

David Clewell

Winner of the Four Lakes Prize in Poetry
 Almost Nothing to Be Scared Of

“David Clewell has a lot to say, peppering his essayistic poems with lopsided wit and keen observations on the spectacle of American culture. His social commentary deserves a gang of listeners for the truth of his insights and the sheer fun of the delivery. By the way, did you know that the Inverted Atomic Drop was a wrestling move?”—Billy Collins

 

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April 5
Death on a Starry Night
Betsy Draine and Michael Hinden

Death on a Starry Night is a romp through French art, fine wine, romance, and murder. This is the third novel in the Nora Barnes and Toby Sandler mystery series, as these artful sleuths investigate the mysterious death of Vincent van Gogh.  “Thoroughly engaging. Draine and Hinden’s eccentric and amiable characters (one of whom happens to be a murderer) gather together to share delicious meals, amble through medieval villages, and argue about van Gogh’s art, life, and mysterious death in this charming whodunit.”—M. L. Longworth, author of The Mystery of the Lost Cézanne

 

Virgil and Joyce

April 12
Virgil and Joyce
Nationalism and Imperialism in the Aeneid and Ulysses
Randall J. Pogorzelski

Virgil and Joyce illuminates how James Joyce’s Ulysses was influenced not just by Homer’s Odyssey but by Virgil’s Aeneid, as both authors confronted issues of nationalism, colonialism, and political violence, whether in imperial Rome or revolutionary Ireland.  “Joyce emerges here as a literary reader who rethinks Virgil’s Aeneid as a post-imperial epic, a poem about colonialism and national identity.”—Phiroze Vasunia, author of The Classics and Colonial India

 

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April 19
The Invisible Jewish Budapest
Metropolitan Culture at the Fin de Siècle
Mary Gluck

The Invisible Jewish Budapest is a groundbreaking, brilliant urban history of a Central European metropolis in the decades before World War I.  “A magnificently consequential book. Gluck examines the vibrant modernist culture created largely by secular Jews in Budapest, in counterpoint to a backward-looking, nationalistic Hungarian establishment and a conservative Jewish religious elite.”—Scott Spector, author of Violent Sensations

 

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City of Neighborhoods
Memory, Folklore, and Ethnic Place in Boston
Anthony Bak Buccitelli

City of Neighborhoods  “This fascinating deep-dive into historically ethnic neighborhoods reveals that old stereotypes have been supplanted by vibrant, multiethnic neighborhoods that now use ethnicity as a means for inclusion. A riveting, insider look into what really happens in Boston’s diverse neighborhoods.”—Timothy Tangherlini, UCLA

 

 

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April 27
My Sister’s Mother
A Memoir of War, Exile, and Stalin’s Siberia
Donna Solecka Urbikas

My Sister’s Mother is an American baby boomer’s account of the ordeals of her Polish mother and half sister as slave laborers in Siberia who escaped and survived. “This stunning, heartfelt memoir looks unflinchingly at the scars borne by one Polish immigrant family as their daughter tries to become a normal American girl in Chicago. A gripping study of family dynamics, this is also a must-read for World War II history buffs.”—Leonard Kniffel, author of A Polish Son in the Motherland

Wisconsin announces poetry prize winners

Hood, Lantz, and Vollmer win the Felix Pollak, Brittingham, and Four Lakes Prizes

Charles Hood, Nick Lantz, and Judith Vollmer have been named winners of the annual poetry contests administered by the Creative Writing Program of the University of Wisconsin–Madison and the University of Wisconsin Press.

All three prize-winning books will be published in early 2017 by the University of Wisconsin Press, as part of the Wisconsin Poetry Series edited by Ronald Wallace. 

The Brittingham Prize, conferred annually since 1985, and the Felix Pollak Prize, founded in 1994, are awarded to book-length manuscripts of original poetry submitted in an open competition. Each year, a nationally recognized poet chooses the winners. This year’s judge was Susan Mitchell, author of Rapture and Erotikon, winner of numerous awards and fellowships, including a Guggenheim, and holder of the Mary Blossom Lee Endowed Chair in Creative Writing at Florida Atlantic University. The Four Lakes Prize, begun in 2011, is awarded to a new book of poetry submitted by a past winner of the Brittingham or Pollak competitions, selected by an editorial board at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

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Charles Hood

Charles Hood is the recipient of this year’s Felix Pollak Prize. A professor of English at Antelope Valley College in Lancaster, California, Hood earned his MFA in poetry from the University of California, Irvine. His forthcoming collection, Partially Excited States, is praised by Mitchell as “simultaneously gorgeous, playful, witty, goofy, hilarious, and profound.” She calls it “a brilliant book that encompasses what it is to be human,” and adds that “its poems have all the exuberance and excitement of creation.” Hood’s previous poetry books include South x South and several small press collections and chapbooks.

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Nick Lantz

Winner of the Brittingham Prize, Nick Lantz is a past recipient of the Felix Pollak prize for his work The Lightning That Strikes the Neighbor’s House. His new volume, You, Beast, will be his fourth book of poetry. Mitchell calls it a “masterful and deeply moving collection that raises political and social questions urging us toward a new world where humans, animals, plants—even the cockroach—are worthy of respect.” Lantz is an assistant professor of English at Sam Houston State University and received his MFA from the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

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Judith Vollmer

Judith Vollmer was awarded the Four Lakes Prize for her manuscript The Apollonia Poems.

2809She previously won the Brittingham Prize for her collection Level Green, and her book Reactor was also published by the University of Wisconsin Press. She is professor of English at the University of Pittsburgh at Greensburg and teaches in the low residency MFA Program at Drew University. The Appollonia Poems, the author’s sixth volume of poetry, has been praised by Alicia Ostriker, who observed, “this book is a trip, or many trips. Here is the creative mind at work and play—its geological layers uncovered, lifetimes and cultures revisited.” She describes Vollmer’s voice as “curious, tender, and flinty, with its own grave and ethereal music.”

 

 

 

The Greatest Speech in the History of the U.S. Senate Still Resonates Today

(Note: The following opinion piece first appeared on The Daily Call, February 23, 2016. Richard Drake is the author of the UW Press book The Education of an Anti-Imperialist: Robert La Follette and U.S. Expansion.)

By Richard Drake
Special to the Daily Call

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Robert La Follette

On 4 April 1917, Senator Robert La Follette of Wisconsin rose in the Senate to speak in opposition to Woodrow Wilson’s call for war against Germany, a message delivered by the President to a joint session of Congress two days earlier. Wilson had said that to preserve its honor and freedom, the United States had no choice but to fight Germany. The autocratic German government recently had resumed its campaign of unrestricted submarine warfare, which Wilson characterized as an unprecedented evil in the history of civilized nations. Germany had plunged the world into a new dark age, he told the assembled lawmakers. The United States alone, Wilson believed, possessed the power and the moral idealism to bring the war to an honorable and just conclusion “for the ultimate peace of the world and for the liberation of its peoples.” In what would become the centerpiece of Allied propaganda about the purpose of the war, the President added, “The world must be made safe for democracy.” At the end of his thirty-six-minute-long speech, nearly everyone present stood and cheered, many patriotically
waving small American flags. La Follette Wilsondefiantly kept his seat and did not join in the applause.

 

An ominous trend

La Follette’s turn to speak came two days later, in the Senate chamber. The leader of the anti-war faction in the Senate, he would take four hours to make his rebuttal to the President. After reading an anti-war letter from one of his supporters in North Dakota, he began his speech with a warning to the American people about a dangerous trend in the country. As a United States senator, he always had thought that the people deserved his best efforts to speak knowledgeably and honestly about the great issues of the day. Now a new trend could be seen in Washington: “standing back of the President without inquiring whether the President is right or wrong.” He judged it to be an ominous trend for the integrity of American politics.

La Follette thought the President not only wrong but deceptive in his war message. Future propagandists would find in Wilson’s speech an exemplary concoction for their craft. La Follette questioned Wilson’s sincerity in claiming the cause of democracy as the supreme end of America’s war policy. Some palpable facts contradicted the President’s claim. If democracy mattered so much to the United States government, why did we do nothing and say nothing about the plight of Ireland, Egypt, and India whose teeming millions languished in undemocratic servitude to our wartime ally, Great Britain? Nor had our other major allies—France, Italy, and Russia—covered themselves with glory by advancing the cause of democracy in their empires. As making the world safe for democracy could not in truth be presented as the real reason for our entering the war, it would behoove the American people to discover what actually had motivated our leaders to take this dread step.

A war of selfish ambition and cruel greed

To understand the real reasons for America’s involvement in the war, it would be necessary to determine the conflict’s origins in Europe. He guessed that at bottom the Europeans were in the process of wrecking their civilization because of commercial rivalries and imperialistic ambition. He told his fellow senators, “this war, like nearly all others, originated in the selfish ambition and cruel greed of a comparatively few men in each Government who saw the war as an opportunity for profit and power for themselves, and who were wholly indifferent to the awful suffering they knew that the war would bring the masses.” He made the right guess here. Later revelations about secret treaties and historical research in government archives would prove indisputably that the war had broken out in a context of imperialistic striving by all the major combatant nations for territories, markets, and resources.

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About American motives for intervening in the slaughter-pen of Europe, La Follette could only raise questions and make suppositions. “Are we seizing upon the war to consolidate and extend an imperialistic policy?” he asked. It looked that way to him, especially in view of our alliance with Britain. He did not think of British imperialism, in the manner of so many Americans at that time and in the future, as a charming eccentricity of a brother democracy. He told the senators, “We are uniting with Great Britain, “an empire founded upon the conquests and subjugation of weaker nations.” It stood to reason that by our alliance with the British we would be implicated in their imperialist agenda. The economics of imperialism made it seem to La Follette as if the United States were engaging in a war to make the world safe for Wall Street, not democracy. From the first Wall Street-funded war loan to the Allies in 1915, La Follette had feared that our economic entanglements with the Allies would lead ineluctably to armed intervention. It turned out to be a legitimate fear. In its spectacular revelations of the 1930s, the Nye Committee would disclose the precise details of the financial arrangements—above all, the war loans—which had done much to bring America into the war.

Washington’s variously motivated Anglophile agenda had led to the double standards with which the American media and government had judged the wartime conduct of the two coalitions. The President appeared to be unaware of these differences. For example, he had described with horror Germany’s enormities in its unrestricted submarine warfare campaign, without thinking to mention Britain’s illegal naval blockade, which had resulted in appalling hardship and injury to German civilians. La Follette sought to flesh out the President’s excessively compressed analysis. He noted that American silence about Britain’s flagrant violations of international law had “helped to drive Germany into a corner, her back to the wall, to fight with what weapons she can lay her hands on to prevent the starving of her women and children, her old men and babes.” In the typical fashion of propagandists, the President mendaciously had omitted all the facts and conditions inconvenient for his argument. Half-truths, deceptions, and lies concealed the truth of why we were going to war.

La Follette’s clear vision

Amos Pinchot, a progressive journalist friend to La Follette, sat in the press gallery that night and remembered: “At the end of his speech, tremendously moved and completely convinced of the immediate and ultimate wisdom of his vision, he stood in silence, tears running down his face.” Pinchot thought that he had the look of a despairing man, “like that of a person who had failed to keep his child from doing itself an irreparable harm.” He then sat down, slumped in his seat, and closed his eyes. Another journalist sitting with Pinchot, Gilson Gardner of the Scripps newspapers, leaned over to him and said, “This is the greatest speech we will either of us ever hear. It will not be answered because it is unanswerable.”

Paris Peace

The greatness of La Follette’s 4 April 1917 speech consists partly of its effectiveness in exposing the obfuscations of President Wilson’s fateful war message, but also of its prophetic character. He foresaw that the war would have an imperialist outcome, no matter which side won. The Paris Peace Conference at the end of the war confirmed these forebodings, as the victors created a spoils-based international order that would lead to the outbreak of the Second World War twenty years later and prepare the ground for the manifold crises in the Middle East that afflict us today.

Lunging from illusion to illusion

Moreover, La Follette rightly sensed that intervention in the war would be an irreversible turning point for the United States, the decisive act of unleashing what William Appleman Williams would call the tragedy of American diplomacy. As the world’s only creditor nation in 1919, the United States became the chief funder and the linchpin of the postwar international order. America’s foreign policy would not be able to escape the gravitational pull of economic forces operating on a global scale. Endless wars would be in the country’s future.

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We continue to live the tragedy of American diplomacy today, as our leaders lunge from illusion to illusion with no more idea than President Wilson had about the desolating costs of empire. La Follette thought that it would do no good in the long run to resort to the President’s politically soothing euphemisms to describe our empire. That these euphemisms, either in their original or updated forms, continue in use as the only way leading presidential candidates can talk about American foreign policy is a tribute to Wilson’s genius as a salesman. At the same time, the current political campaign reminds us of La Follette’s greater genius as a true leader.

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Richard Drake is professor of history at the University of Montana. He is the author of The Education of an Anti-Imperialist: Robert La Follette and U.S. ExpansionApostles and Agitators:Italy’s Marxist Revolutionary Tradition; and The Aldo Moro Murder Case, among other works.

Related writings by Richard Drake:

The Education of an Anti-Imperialist: Robert La Follette and U.S. Expansion (Studies in American Thought and Culture). University of Wisconsin Press, 2013.

On The Origins Of the Middle East Morass: This Is When Muslims In The Middle East Turned To Extremism

New Books in March 2016

We are excited to announce six books forthcoming this month!Whitaker-The-Blue-Hour-c

THE BLUE HOUR
Jennifer Whitaker

Winner of the Brittingham Prize in Poetry
Selected by Denise Duhamel

Fairy tales both familiar and obscure create a threshold, and the The Blue Hour pulls us over it. With precise language and rich detail, these poems unflinchingly create an eerie world marked by abuse, asking readers not just to bear witness but to try to understand how we make meaning in the face of the meaningless violence.

 

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THE BOOK OF HULGA
Rita Mae Reese

Winner of the Felix Pollak Prize in Poetry
Selected by Denise Duhamel

The Book of Hulga speculates—with humor, tenderness, and a brutal precision—on a character that Flannery O’Connor envisioned but did not live long enough to write: “the angular intellectual proud woman approaching God inch by inch with ground teeth.” These striking poems look to the same sources that O’Connor sought out, from Gerard Manley Hopkins to Edgar Allan Poe to Simone Weil. Original illustrations by Julie Franki further illuminate Reese’s imaginative verse biography of a modern-day hillbilly saint.

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REASON AFTER ITS ECLIPSE
On Late Critical Theory
Martin Jay

Martin Jay tackles a question as old as Plato and still pressing today: what is reason, and what roles does and should it have in human endeavor? Applying the tools of intellectual history, Reason after Its Eclipse examines the overlapping, but not fully compatible, meanings that have accrued to the term “reason” over two millennia, homing in on moments of crisis, critique, and defense of reason.

 

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FEEDING MANILA IN PEACE AND WAR, 1850–1945
Daniel F. Doeppers

Policymakers and scholars have come to realize that getting food, water, and services to the millions who live in the world’s few dozen megacities is one of the twenty-first century’s most formidable challenges. As these populations continue to grow, apocalyptic scenarios—sprawling slums plagued by hunger, disease, and social disarray—become increasingly plausible. In Feeding Manila in Peace and War, 1850–1945, Daniel F. Doeppers traces nearly a century in the life of Manila, one of the world’s largest cities, to show how it grew and what sustained it.

 

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SEVEN YEARS OF GRACE
The Inspired Mission of Achsa W. Sprague
Sara Rath

Distributed for the Vermont Historical Society

Seven Years of Grace is a dramatized account of the life of Achsa Sprague (1827–1862), who in the decade preceding the American Civil War lectured to audiences of thousands on Spiritualism, the abolition of slavery, women’s rights, and prison reform. She presented herself as a medium, lecturing and singing hymns in a state of trance. Alone on stage, she drew acclaim and admiration but also jeers, ridicule, and condemnation. A skeptic in Oswego, New York, asked, “Why is it that all the world should run nightly mad to hear her in a pretended trance?” A Milwaukee newspaper proclaimed her words “profound twaddle from beginning to end.” Yet Achsa’s crowds continued to grow in size and enthusiasm. Grounded in the extensive collection of Achsa Sprague’s papers at the Vermont Historical Society, Seven Years of Grace is both a fascinating tale and a revealing window into the past.

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DEATH STALKS DOOR COUNTY
Patricia Skalka

The first book in the Dave Cubiak Door County Mystery Series, now in paperback

Six deaths. A grief-stricken investigator. Betrayal. Why?

“Can a big-city cop solve a series of murders whose only witnesses may be the hemlocks? An atmospheric debut.”—Kirkus Reviews

“Murder seems unseemly in Door County, a peninsula covered in forests, lined by beaches, and filled with summer cabins and tourist resorts. That’s the hook for murder-thriller Death Stalks Door County, the first in a series involving ranger Dave Cubiak, a former Chicago homicide detective.”—Milwaukee Shepherd Express

Read more here.

Slade House in Review(s)

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A new novel from David Mitchell, Slade House, was published in October 2015. Following up on a 2015 special issue  of the journal SubStance devoted to Mitchell’s extraordinary works of fiction, Paul Harris and Patrick O’Donnell previewed Slade House in a pre-publication discussion. Now that the novel has received its early critical response, Harris and O’Donnell review the reviews.


 

Paul Harris

Paul Harris

PAUL HARRIS: As we suspected, the reviews of David Mitchell’s Slade House seem quite cleanly divided between two types of responses. Either the novel is a “devilishly fun … fiendish delight” fit to devour in a single sitting like the twins sucking down another soul, or it is dismissed as “soul-sucking mumbo-jumbo” registering too high on the “wackometer” to enjoy, let alone take seriously.

The most positive reviews see it as an entertainment given substance by the “human warmth” of its characters or the philosophical questions it raises: John Boyne calls it “a highly effective, creepy and witty ghost story, designed to unsettle the reader and raise questions about what all of us might do in our quest for immortality.” The most negative assessments see Slade House as a letdown, or even a betrayal: for Scarlet Thomas, the novel moves Mitchell from exemplary author (“what would David Mitchell do?”) to one “writing [his] own fan fiction.” Thomas criticizes Mitchell for moral and political disingenuousness: the novel sounds “hefty themes” but transfers “meaning and purpose” from the real to the “supernatural” and ends up offering only a “Bill and Ted philosophy” that we should all “be excellent to one another.”

 

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Patrick, do you see a third alternative to these views, an excluded middle that gets us out of the muddle of either seeing Slade House as a lite fictional funhouse or a shrill failure without much value? In considering this question myself, one avenue that I’ve thought about is genre. Reflecting on the many reviews I read, I realize how critical the lens of genre is in the reader’s reception of Slade House. The novel has garnered ubiquitous comparisons to Henry James’s Turn of the Screw for giving the ghost story a new twist, while also being lauded for its Lovecraftian integration of horror and science fiction. Others, though, diagnose Slade House as over the top in its deployment of genre(s) and heavy-handed in explaining or laying bare the rules of its fictive world.  I found science fiction writer and critic Paul Kincaid’s review the most informed, persuasive take on this issue. Though the novel as a whole sounds the horror note, Kincaid points out that in each section Mitchell “sets up genre expectations and then upends them in a very deliberate and calculated way.” This pattern is what makes Mitchell so successful: Kincaid concludes that Slade House “works, as all of Mitchell’s novels have worked, because we start out reading one thing and end up reading something very different indeed.”

Mitchell both explodes the boundaries of genre (by refusing to stay within the confines of distinct classes of fiction) and implodes them (by miming a genre and then turning it inside out).

Kincaid’s review made me appreciate Mitchell’s constant upending of expectations, but it also made me wonder whether the game can reach a point of exhaustion. Mitchell’s fictional arcs can abruptly shift dimensions, it seems, because it is all fiction—it’s all made up, so you are free to make anything up and keep changing the rules; once this is the case, ultimately there is nothing that can be trusted and nothing that cannot be done.

Slade House seems to assert this view of narration or fiction most explicitly or literally. The twins have infinite fiction-creating power dressed up in Lacuna-Operandi-Orison stagesets, but they SO free to compose the scene and inhabit characters that there are no rules left. Behind the world being constructed is an omnipotent wizard who can wave a wand at any time, without any need to justify matters. The orison of the Fox and Hounds pub featuring Jonah commandeering Fred Pink in the novel’s penultimate section felt the most contrived; the sudden shift left me more ticked off than tickled. This reversal then sets up the final turning of the tables, at yet another level of abstraction, when Marinus’s powers prove even more infinite than the Grayers, and time enters the Lacuna. As readers, we should be able to see this coming because that final section is narrated by Norah, and each section has shown the destruction of unsuspecting narrators who think they are in one world with one set of rules but turn out not to know who or what they are up against.

Returning to one strand of our previous discussion, I am left wondering what Slade House tells us about the house of fiction. If the rules of conjuring have no rules, or all genres and conventions can be flouted at any time, then there is not enough suspense or tension left to warrant our entering into a state of suspended disbelief—put differently, with nothing to believe in, there is nothing not to believe in, and hence no disbelief either.

What are your thoughts about this very basic but also encompassing question of the rules for constructing houses of fiction?


 

Patrick O'Donnell

Patrick O’Donnell

PATRICK O’DONNELL:  Like you, I am not terribly surprised by the bifurcated responses from the reviewers, though I think those that regard Slade House as a minor entertainment really miss the mark. Many of the responses that you cite proceed from a set of expectations regarding both David Mitchell (a major novelist in mid-career) and the fictional genres that he characteristically engages—or rather, the fictional sub-genres (as they are often viewed) of  fantasy, science fiction, horror.  The combination of “major novelist” and “sub-genre” poses a dilemma for reviewers who have a hard time putting together the notions of serious literature and popular genres, despite much important Anglo-American fiction since the 1960s closing the gap between “high” and “low” art.”

Murakami

I’ll simply note in this regard that one of Mitchell’s fictional mentors, Haruki Murakami, received a similar set of binary responses to 1Q84. Reviewers, in the main, weren’t particularly happy with that novel’s engagement with what they perceived as a chaotic mix of realism, mysticism, fantasy, and various shaggy dog pyrotechnics.

There seems to be an equal amount of difficulty with the expectation that each succeeding novel by an acknowledged, important novelist and prolific writer must somehow “top” everything that has come before, or offer some kind of visible, steady advance (“the best David Mitchell novel yet!”) in an ever-rising career trajectory.

I’m quite sure there is a large excluded middle between viewing Slade House as either a delightful (but minor) entertainment or a “fan fiction.” There are many ways seeing the novel that do not rely so much on the expectations I’ve mentioned.

I’m in complete agreement with you that examining what Mitchell is doLost in the Funhouseing with genre in Slade House, and throughout his fiction, offers one way of getting at what is at stake in this newest work. Some of the reviewers seem to suggest that nothing important is at stake, particularly those who are disappointed that Mitchell seems to be trading off his investment in the “big themes” of human greed, exploitation, colonialism, mortality, historical inevitability, or historical change, etc., for sheer fun, fantasy, and entertainment (or lack thereof).  And, I think you are quite right in suggesting that the novel is constantly turning the tables on itself and on the expectations of its readers by positing that its own fictional rules are constantly changing and subverting their own tenancy. I’m reminded of the line in John Barth’s Lost in the Funhouse: “for whom is the funhouse fun?”

For you, it seems that the suspension of belief in the rules that undergird the suspension of disbelief results in a kind of mise en abyme of infinite play and a loss of semiotic power that, for those unhappy with certain putative versions of postmodernism, signals a dead end of sorts.

I’d like to pose another possible way of seeing all of this.  The novel—quite seriously, I think, for all of its esoteric claptrap, as well as its fractality and generic hybridity—poses the questions of who is making the rules, and what are the hidden or manifest agendas of their making?

How do those in power (the rule-makers) stay in power, and what do power-mongering and rule-making—which in Mitchell’s fiction has everything to do with the enforcement and construction of a supposedly orderly and stable “reality” that enables those in power to remain empowered—have to do with our sense of what constitutes human identity?

Michel Foucault has performed for us the crucial work of explaining how power operates in relation to knowledge: he poses and answers a series of complicated epistemological questions. But he doesn’t get at what power has to do with us ontologically, and I think that is what Mitchell is trying to get at in his work, including Slade House, with its soulsucking semi-immortals and its rebirthed “saviors” like Marinus, who operates not as a deus ex machina but as a last-ditch interventionist embodying the unforeseen good luck of those who will not be destroyed by the Grayers in the future (though that’s not to say something else won’t come along to take their place). The novel might then be seen as extending the fantasy of empowerment, perhaps to its absurdist limit, enabling us to ask some key questions: what happens if everyone is in on the lie of this fantasy that disguises the real fragility and vulnerability of the empowered? What happens if we see that power, with all of its seductions, is the opposite of what constitutes (or should constitute) life and being? What if the construction of reality is put into the hands of the multitude and not the hands of the one per cent?

Let me put the ball back in your court, Paul: How do you see Slade House in relation to Mitchell’s previous fiction: as an advance, an extension, a repetition, a refutation—or, if none of those, how can we regard it?  Is there any way to tell where Mitchell goes from here?


 

PAUL HARRIS: Pat, you just hit the refresh button on Slade House for me: I look forward to rereading it to watch how empowerment is linked to world-making and see how it plays in these terms. You’re right to remind Mitchell readers that, just as he collapses serious and popular genres, he also sounds heavy themes in seemingly light stories.

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As for how Slade House relates to Mitchell’s previous work, in form and structure it most clearly resembles Ghostwritten, Cloud Atlas, and Bone Clocks. All these texts are divided into discrete sections with different narrators set in different decades/centuries. The obvious difference is that Slade House takes place at one setting, while the episodes in the other novels span the globe. Just as the spatial setting doesn’t change, Slade House also generates a more static image or concept of time than those other novels. Even though its episodes move forward nine years each time, each plays out the same scenario, so there is not the same kind of plot advancement as in the other texts.

The game afoot is to defy mortality: the Grayers persist in a Lacuna where time doesn’t pass, and they consume engifted souls to keep themselves from aging.  The narrative time thus progresses in a recursive loop; each nine years a new narrator enters a new Orison, but the modus operandi remains the same. The novel’s temporality reminds me a bit of a video game, where a new player enters and tries to beat the villains. It is reminiscent of the film Run Lola Run (explicitly framed as a video game sequence, run three times through), except that not all characters remain the same through the iterations of the game-time. As in that film, here there is Run Lolalearning, or shared information, that accumulates in the game’s iterations: knowledge and weapons are passed forward. For the reader, each section makes us increasingly familiar with the plot routine (enter the house, consume Banjanx, go upstairs, soul is consumed). So, as we make our way through it, the novel seems to become more and more suspended in the ghostly time of its fictional house. Of course, like all Mitchell novels, it ends with a new beginning. Instead of Norah’s death closing the deal, she transverses into a fetus and vows revenge on Marinus—and surely we can anticipate seeing this confrontation in a future novel.

This brings me to the other question you posed: what direction Mitchell might take from here. Mitchell is particularly fun to play this game with, because he keeps defying expectations and exploring new territories. In imagining Mitchell’s career trajectory, I don’t think about his work as a single arc or linear process. I’ve written before that it seems more fitting to imagine his texts as iterations in a fractal imagination. The recurring characters, themes, and genres prompt me to picture his “übernovel” as a sort of strange attractor; each text marks a recursive movement—both returning to familiar sites and opening new terrains—that simultaneously fleshes out and fills in more and more of his fictional universe. With each textual iteration, the overall shape and contours of his übernovel become increasingly clear and its constituent parts more densely interwoven.

If we conceptualize Mitchell’s work this way, then speculating where Mitchell’s work will go next would entail running the strange attractor simulation through its next iteration. Stanislaw Lem actually thought about authors’ work in this way in his brDostoevskyilliant “History of Bitic Literature” thought-experimental essay published in 1973. (Lem is a “Prescient” if ever there was one!) Lem imagines computing machines capable of “bitic mimesis,” machine-written imitation of writers. He describes a novel by Pseudodostoevsky, created by a computer processing all existing Dostoevsky novels as information in “the space of meanings” and modeling his corpus as “a curved mass, recalling in its structure an open torus, that is, a ‘broken ring’ (with a gap). Thus it was a relatively simple task (for machines, of course, not for people!) to close that gap, inserting the missing link” (58).

At first sight, it seems much harder to model Mitchell’s writing in that way than Dostoevsky’s; the latter seems to have an internal stylistic and generic consistency that Mitchell purposely eschews. But with each successive novel, his corpus seems to gain coherence and consistency, assuming some sort of discernible shape. If I tried to model Mitchell’s work, I wouldn’t start from “the space of meanings” in the words, but rather I would list a set of recurring elements—island or city settings, cats, types of characters (angry writer, gifted rebellious teen)—and a template for form, such as every ending a beginning, stand-alone episodic stories serving a larger plot, etc.

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Putting aside this digressive line of speculative unreasoning, one could make a more educated guess at predicting the shape of Mitchell’s future work by following the clues he himself has laid down. In her excellent piece about The Bone Clocks, Kathryn Schulz reports that Mitchell mapped out his next several several texts: “These include further adventures with soul-eating villains, a trio of linked novellas set in New York in the late ’60s and early ’70s, a return to historical fiction (different hemisphere this time), and a fictionalized biography of an 18th-century person you’ve probably heard of. The final installment of the Marinus trilogy will follow all that. Mitchell is also toying with an idea for what will by then be his 12th novel. It is set 250 million years in the future.”  It will be interesting to see if Mitchell adheres to this plan or if he cannot stop his restless imagination from going in other directions. Regardless of what Orisons Mitchell sends from his Operandi though, I confess that I’ll always eagerly eat the Banjanx he serves up, as long as my psychovoltage holds out.

I have suggested that Mitchell might serve readers well by publishing serially rather than in novels. Wouldn’t it be great if we could ‘subscribe’ to him, and receive his novels in installments, rather than waiting for the whole work to be done and consuming it all at once?  This would make reading Mitchell much more fun; not only would we endure shorter breaks between new Mitchell texts, but we would also stay in suspense much longer when one section ends, and have time to wonder what is coming next. This would also prevent book reviews from spoiling the surprise of reading his novels, the problem we attempted to mitigate in our first exchange.

I find reading his books now comparable to binge-watching seasons of a TV series. Just playing with this scenario, if the storylines of several novels are already set, one could even imagine a point where Mitchell could hire ‘writers’ to execute textual episodes in the ongoing übernovel saga. This turnabout on himself would even be fair play in some way.  Mitchell has been a kind of authorial noncorporum who infiltrates the minds of narrators, styles of authors, and conventions of genres, and speaks through them. He does more than allude to other writers; it is like he dons their modus operandi and produces a new version of them: number9dream is like Murakami as done by Mitchell; Cloud Atlas is like Mitchell does Defoe, Melville, Nabokov, Hoban, etc.  So why not see if talented writers could ‘do’ Mitchell?

David Mitchell book tour

David Mitchell

Of course, I don’t imagine or expect that Mitchell would ever outsource his stories to other writers. But I do think that he and his editor/publisher/agent might consider alternative delivery systems beyond print novels. He has already migrated into twitter; why not break new ground in publishing fiction?  I actually suggested this to Mitchell a year ago; he simply responded in conventional terms, saying that he would continue to follow the existing process. This occurred at a book tour stop for Bone Clocks, so maybe it wasn’t the right context for him to consider other options.

So, I’ll bounce it back to you—where do you see Mitchell going from here, and what do you think of his moving to some sort of serial publication, adapted to the contemporary historical context?


 

PATRICK O’DONNELL:  Thanks, Paul, for this lively speculation on where Mitchell might go from here. I completely agree that his fictions, as they unfold across the time of their writing, are “iterations in a fractal imagination”—that’s a terrific way of viewing his work incrementally. Doing so, as you suggest, leads to many interesting possibilities for reading him in the future (as well as considering what his writing in/of the future might look like).

There are “personalities” like Marinus to consider, who appears to be an amalgamation of tendencies or projections, a wavering needle on the scale that runs from protagonist to antagonist.  Then there are all the atomistic shapes and designs of Mitchell’s work, taken fractally as a non-totalizable totality—rooms, islands, fortresses, cities, avenues, pathways, landscapes, artifacts, assemblages of all kinds. One finds all of these and more in any novelist of Mitchell’s encyclopedic demeanor, but in observing these iterations across—now—seven novels, we definitely get the sense that each of these shapes and designs bear striking similarities but are radically different from novel to novel.

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One of the pleasures taken by many of Mitchell’s fans is playing “Where’s Waldo?” with his novels as they appear, focusing on the transmigratory characters of the novels. It’s rather like spotting the various manifestations of Tom Hanks in the film adaptation of Cloud Atlas (which, by the way, despite some dismal reviews, provides to my mind a compelling and precise visual rendering of Mitchell’s sense that civilizations across time are made up of transmutable identities, forms, and objects in continuous collision with each other). But to play “Where’s Waldo?” with the novels largely misses the point, because doing so overdetermines character as the primary element of his fiction.

I know there are some who read the repeated/rebirthed characters of Mitchell’s novels as generating some concept of transcendent human identity, or as a comment about the survival of “the human” over the reaches of time and amidst the collapse of civilizations and cultures, but I don’t quite see it that way. The repeated identities of his novels, to me, are simply one set of elements among many that circulate molecularly through his fiction: his game is terrain, not identity, and thus he is always moving—at times sequentially, at times randomly—between generated worlds always in the process of formation. This is another reason why I think the Wachowskis/Twyker adaptation of Cloud Atlas was so successful while being true to its materiality as a visual experience:  while probably difficult to understand “thematically,” especially for those not familiar with the novel and thus challenged to follow the intertwined plots of the film, visually, it captured perfectly Mitchell’s sense that history “happens” in a fragmented, non-linear fashion, that cultures and identities evolve fractally, and that the “whole” of reality is an illusion for which we generate partial narrative patterns and signifying chains as compensations.

David Mitchel ghost

David Mitchell

Given all of that, I agree entirely that the future “Mitchell” may well try out different forms and kinds of writing made available as the digital age progresses. As we know, writing and thinking are being radically transformed by the advent of social media, and there are several contemporary writers beginning to experiment with those forms in interesting ways.

The origins of Slade House in Twitter certainly indicates that Mitchell may well be moving into this territory. It will be interesting to see what happens along these lines given that, predictably, he will continue to be strongly tied to the notion of the book and the narrative traditions that have emerged in the post-Gutenberg book culture. (For many, “the book” is done, though not, I think, for David Mitchell.)  As you suggest, Mitchell may well move into a form of serial publication that somehow replicates both the novel’s traditional seriality (think of the apocryphal crowds waiting on the Brooklyn docks for the arrival of the latest number of The Old Curiosity Shop in the nineteenth century, and yielding up a universal moan when readers collectively came upon the death of Little Nell) and the new serialities of the digital age: semirandom, occasional, serendipitous, wherever Google takes us.

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But I think as well that Mitchell may in the future be exploring both other media and new ways of viewing how human cognition and behavior work, made available by the fast-moving advances in neuroscience and genetics currently taking place. The two indicators of this for me are his recent collaborative work with his wife, KA Yoshida, on the English translation of Naoki Higashida’s The Reason I Jump, and the “3-D film-opera,” The Sunken Garden, with Michel van der Aa. I think it’s quite possible that Mitchell will be engaging in future collaborative projects that mix media (as he does genres in his novels) or that involve collaborative writing projects of some kind.

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David Mitchell and Michael van der Aa

And—given Mitchell’s fascination with childhood and adolescence (revealed most fully in blackswangreen but visible throughout his fiction), combined with the cognitive and learning processes of children that he directly engages with personally and in the act of co-translating the memoir of an autistic teenager—I would not be at all surprised to see Mitchell writing young adult fiction, or, in another dimension, exploring the ways in which narrative operates cognitively for different minds. In this, as in all of his work, I believe his focus will be not upon the universal, but upon the differences, the fractures in the surface and the gradations in the terrain, however we stumble upon them.


 

PAUL HARRIS: Patrick, this has been a great pleasure.  Thank you for contributing your perspectives on David Mitchell to SubStanceI look forward to reading more of your work and perhaps resuming this conversation when “Season 8” of Mitchell’s übernovel comes out.


 

Paul Harris

Paul Harris

Paul A. Harris is a co-editor of SubStance and a professor of English at Loyola Marymount University. He served as president of the International Society for the Study of Time from 2004-2013 and edited the recent SubStance issue David Mitchell in the Labyrinth of Time.  His current project is The Petriverse of Pierre Jardin.

Patrick O'Donnell

Patrick O’Donnell

Patrick O’Donnell is a professor of twentieth- and twenty-first-century British and American literature at Michigan State University; he is the author and editor of over a dozen books on modern and contemporary fiction, most recently, The American Novel Now:  Reading American Fiction Since 1980 (Wiley-Blackwell, 2010), and A Temporary Future: The Fiction of David Mitchell (Bloomsbury, 2015).  He is currently working on a book about Henry James and contemporary cinema.