23rd Annual Literary Festival
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Port Folio -- Special Issue

September 26, 2000

The following articles are from the online edition:

  • O Brave New World That Has Such Writers in It -- The 23rd Annual Old Dominion University Literary Festival is upon us. And it promises to be one of the most exciting in the event's history -- Tom Robotham
  • Night and Day -- Steven Millhauser's Pulitzer Prize winning novel, Martin Dressler, is grounded in a recognizable historical reality. But in some of his shorter fiction, the everyday world morphs into the fantastic -- By Sondra Swift
  • Beyond Categories -- Ernest J. Gaines is one of America's best contemporary black writers. But ultimately, that label is much too limiting -- By Joseph Cosco -- image version
  • Telling the True War Story -- The poetic quality of Tim O'Brien's prose sets him apart from the countless writers who have tried to capture the Vietnam experience -- By Gillian Devereux

O Brave New World That Has Such Writers in It

The 23rd Annual Old Dominion University Literary Festival is upon us. And it promises to be one of the most exciting in the event's history.

Mr. Shakespeare will forgive me, I hope, for rewriting his lines. The title of this year's ODU literary festival, A New World, is drawn from a line in The Tempest: "O brave new world that has such people in it." But since writers help us define our world – while heightening our sense of what it means to be human -- it is only right that we should pay special tribute to them.

And that, of course, is what literary festivals are all about. They are designed to celebrate the art of literature and to deepen our appreciation of it.

Over the last two decades, the ODU festival has accomplished this mission by bringing to Hampton Roads some of the world's greatest novelists, poets, dramatists and journalists.

Ken Kesey, Allen Ginsberg, Raymond Carver, Rita Dove, John McPhee, Donald Barthelme, William Styron, Diane Ackerman, Gay Talese and Robert Pinsky are just a few of the writers who have participated.

This year's festival will feature several big names as well, including Ernest Gaines, Steven Millhauser and Tim O'Brien. In the following pages, you'll find essays on all three of these extraordinary authors, as well as excerpts from their books.

In addition, we've included bios of the other participants. Reading through them, I was struck by two things – first, that not all of them work exclusively as writers (one is a photographer, another a performance artist), and second, that there is great cultural diversity in the line-up.

Both of these elements are fitting, of course, given the festival's theme. The phrase, "A New World," refers in part to the fact that we are entering a new age – a time in which more and more people from across the globe will come into contact with one another, in both harmony and dissonance. Meanwhile, we will also find ourselves adjusting to new technologies – methods of communication that may bring, among other things, an end to the book as we know it.

In another sense, however, the "New World" theme refers to something timeless. As Festival director Michael Pearson has written, "Whether it be in sonnet form or cyberspace, true literature is always a new world, struggling with themes that have haunted us in the darkness of the cave or the shadow of the spaceship." In other words, literature will continue to evolve in new ways, but it will always be with us.

With this in mind, I am very much looking forward to the festival events. Undoubtedly, they will be enjoyable. And if pay close attention, they may also bring a few epiphanies.

Tom Robotham

Night and Day

Steven Millhauser's Pulitzer Prize winning novel, Martin Dressler, is grounded in a recognizable historical reality. But in some of his shorter fiction, the everyday world morphs into the fantastic

By Sondra Swift

At first glance, the fiction of Steven Millhauser is diverse in form and quite variable in its demands. There are four full length novels, the first of which - Edwin Mullhouse - brought him instant recognition in 1972; more recently, in 1996, Martin Dressler won him the Pulitzer Prize. The bulk of his work, however, is short fiction. With the exception of the recent novella Enchanted Night (1999), which was published in book form, most of his shorter pieces appeared first in periodicals, to be collected in such volumes as In the Penny Arcade (1987), The Barnum Museum (1990), and Little Kingdoms (1993). However, not all of Millhauser's fiction can be put neatly in categories designated by length. His 1986 novel From the Realm of Morpheus is really a collection of short fictions unified by a frame. Indeed, The Realm of Morpheus is a reminder that nothing by Millhauser can be categorized neatly in any way. The frame is the story of a young man drawn like Alice into a world below, where he makes the acquaintance of Morpheus, the god of dream. The fictions within the frame, in some of which the protagonist participates, are all called "tales"; all are unabashedly fantastic. Thus, mermaids and giants appear as characters; one tale, that of "Ignotus," is a turn upon Mary Shelley's Frankenstein.

Like "The Realm," most of Millhauser's shorter works feature elements of fantasy or at least suggest it. Thus, in "Enchanted Night," dolls and a department store mannequin come to life; as in Greek myth, the Moon Goddess falls in love with a young mortal man. In "Behind the Blue Curtain," a boy discovers that, behind the curtain of a movie theatre, the images he has seen projected on the screen lead their own autonomous lives. In "In the Penny Arcade," another boy protagonist suspects much the same secret about the mechanical figures in an arcade. Other short fictions, such as "Alice Falling" and "A Game of Clue," are not so much fantasies per se as elaborate fantasias upon the fictional constructions of others; "Klassik Komix #1" is a sketch for a comic book version of T. S. Eliot's "Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock." Some of Millhauser's short stories, however, seem to exclude fantasy; "A Protest Against the Sun" and "The Sledding Party," for example, can be read as realistic studies of adolescents in realistic settings.

On the whole, Millhauser's longer fiction seems comparatively free of the fantastic. Martin Dressler, for example, along with the novella August Eschenburg – both of which are set in specific historical periods -- maintain the level of realism characteristic of novels of the 19th or the early 20th century. "Portrait of a Romantic" (1977), another close study of recognizable adolescent problems, takes place in a Connecticut of the 1950s so convincingly detailed in descriptions of middle class houses and backyards, schools, and vacation spots as to be oppressive. However, again, the reader must be wary of categorizing Millhauser's work in any way.

The comparatively realistic fiction shares too many themes and devices with the fantastic to be completely free of suspicion. Edwin Mullhouse and "Portrait of a Romantic" employ the Romantic theme of the double, the döppelganger, best known from Poe's "William Wilson." Dolls, automata, and cinema animations abound in much of Millhauser's work. In the more realistic pieces, such serve apparently only as objects for someone's obsession; in the more fantastic, they either suggest lives of their own or literally come to life. Fairy tale characters and situations are not only common but reappear in variations from story to story. Thus, the character Rose Dorn of Edwin Mullhouse, with her evocation of Rapunzel and of the Sleeping Beauty (Dornröschen in Grimm), becomes as it were Eleanor Schumann of Portrait, so romantically ill in her darkened Sleeping Beauty room that she lures the protagonist into fantasies of lethargy and death.

As a whole, Millhauser's work is reminiscent of that by E. T. A. Hoffmann (1776-1822), the German Romantic best known for the stories incorporated by Tchaikovsky in the ballet Nutcracker and by Jacques Offenbach in the opera The Tales of Hoffmann. Such a resemblance is not just a matter of such common themes as automata that come to life or the incursion of the fantastic into the everyday world. The resemblance is deeper. Both writers are concerned with the often heartbreaking difference between what might be called the Day World, the quotidian one in which Connecticut is just Connecticut and dolls can't talk, and a Night World, in which moonlight smooths Connecticut's hard edges and dolls come out to play. In Millhauser's fiction, the difference can dissolve in outright fantasy or in an epiphany concerning another dimension; thus, "The Realm of Morpheus" opens with the protagonist's discovery that sunlight exists to reveal "those shadows, which perhaps have always lain there, unseen in the imperfect light of sunless afternoons" (13). In other stories, the emphasis is on the tension in the difference. In "Portrait," for example, Philip Schoolcraft can feel himself justified in his equation of fiction with self-murder; both might be said to annihilate the Day World. In the same novel, Arthur and Eleanor hate daylight and withdraw when they can into worlds of night and shadow.

Resolved or left in tension, the difference between Day and Night in Millhauser's work is a reminder that terms like "realism," "fantasy," and "magic realism" cannot sufficiently describe fiction of any kind, much less Millhauser's. Such terms blur the very real frustration and anguish artists experience as they attempt to shape the stuff of their everyday lives even, as Jeffrey Cartwright of Edwin Mullhouse discovers, into biography. In his varied work Millhauser has given us a variety of instructive and enjoyable ways of making fiction of artistic frustration with life. To evoke Hoffmann again, he is a Herr Drosselmeier from Nutcracker come to turn our houses and our lives into magic realms.

Sondra Swift is adjunct instructor, Old Dominion University and St. Leo University

Beyond Categories (image version)

Ernest J. Gaines is one of America's best contemporary black writers. But ultimately, that label is much too limiting

By Joseph Cosco

Saying that Ernest J. Gaines is a Southern African-American writer who often writes about manhood is one way to begin appreciating his literary achievement, but ultimately those labels are much too limiting.

Gaines is a Southerner in much the same way that William Faulkner was a Southerner. His best works are rooted in the sugar cane fields and plantations of Louisiana just as Faulkner's are reaped from the cotton fields and plantations of Mississippi. Gaines himself says he came from "a place where people sat around and chewed sugar-cane and roasted sweet potatoes and peanuts in the ashes and sat on ditch banks and went into the swamps and went into the fields -- that's where I can from." That place -- River Lake Plantation in Point Coupee Parish -- is as much a character in his work as any of his human characters.

Gaines no doubt is one of America's best contemporary black writers, but it is more accurate to say he is an important modern American writer who happens to be black. As he has said, "I never think of myself as number one a black writer, quote black, or Louisiana black, but as a writer who happens to draw from his environment what his life is, what heritage is."

And as writer who grew up on a plantation where his parents worked as sharecroppers and where his ancestors labored as slaves, Gaines has always grappled with the question, "What does it mean to be a man?" Emancipation and Civil Rights may have restored the black's humanity, but black men continue to wrestle with questions of manhood, the theme of two of Gaines' best novels, A Lesson Before Dying and A Gathering of Old Men. And yet, in The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, Gaines creates a memorable 110-year-old black woman who witnesses the end of slavery in 1865 and the rise of black militancy in the 1960s.

I first encountered the full power of Gaines' prose in A Lesson Before Dying. I knew, because the cover said so, that the 1993 novel had won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction. I didn't know about the Pulitzer Prize nominations for that book and for "Miss Jane Pittman" and the MacArthur Foundation "genius award" that Gaines won after thirty years of writing. The awards and honors, while impressive, didn't tell me anything I didn't know from my reading of A Lesson Before Dying. The proof was in the prose and Gaines' story-telling powers. Gaines' life-affirming novel lost none of its power during a recent second reading. Further confirmation of Gaines' earthy eloquence came in the form of "A Gathering of Old Men" (1983) and "The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman" (1971).

Set in a small Cajun community in the late 1940s, A Lesson Before Dying is narrated by Grant Wiggins, a university-trained plantation school teacher who reluctantly takes on a "special" student. Jefferson, a young black field hand, is wrongfully convicted of murder and sentenced to death by electrocution. The defense attorney, in a desperate, misguided plea for mercy, had told the court that executing Jefferson was little better than putting "a hog in the electric chair." Grant's charge, imposed on him by his aunt and Jefferson's godmother, is to undo what the defense attorney has done. As the godmother tells Grant, "I don't want them to kill no hog. . . . I want a man to go to that chair, on his own two feet." In trying to teach Jefferson about manhood, heroism and sacrifice, Grant himself becomes a student who learns about the redeeming power of love.

Like A Lesson Before Dying, A Gathering of Old Men is set on a south Louisiana plantation, but now the year is 1979. Again the plot revolves around a killing, this time of a Cajun farmer whose violently racist family leases the plantation. The obvious suspect is Mathu, an old black with a reputation for standing up to whites. Candy Marshall, the white part-owner of the plantation for whom Mathu has served as a sort of father figure, tries to protect him by confessing to the murder. In an effort to further obscure the killer's identity, she summons all the elderly black men of the area, tells them to bring shotguns similar to the murder weapon, and asks them to also claim guilt for the killing. Gaines tells the story by masterfully weaving fifteen different narrative voices -- black and white, male and female, young and old, educated and unschooled, racist and humane. Through the course of a sometimes comic but always dramatically charged day, the old men confront the white sheriff, their fear of reprisal, and their own past grievances and festering guilts. Denied manhood because of their race, each old man ultimately comes to terms with past failures and achieves a measure of manhood based on personal dignity and a sense of self-worth.

In The Autbiography of Miss Jane Pittman, Gaines uses a single narrative voice, that of a fictional 110-year-old black woman, to weave a big, rich tapestry of the African-American experience from Emancipation to the modern Civil Rights era. Gaines develops the novel from purported tape-recorded interviews of the title character and others who know her. Early in his researches Gaines' historian/editor is frustrated by the story's lack of unity. But, as Jane's caretaker Mary advises him, you can't always tie up all the loose ends. Consequently, the story becomes not only the "autobiography" of the gritty Jane Pittman, but a biography of her enduring race. "Miss Jane's story is all their stories, and their stories are Miss Jane's," Gaines writes in the Introduction. The voice, however, is pure Miss Jane -- rhythmic, poetic and true.

Gaines has said he has never been concerned about his "place" in American literature. "I don't give a damn what category people put me in," he once told an interviewer. "If they buy my books, they can put me in any category they want." My advice is, go out a buy a few of his books. Most likely, you'll put him in the category of important modern American literature.

Joseph Cosco is assistant professor of English at Old Dominion

Telling the True War Story

The poetic quality of Tim O'Brien's prose sets him apart from the countless writers who have tried to capture the Vietnam experience

By Gillian Devereux

By the end of the last century, the Vietnam war had assumed mythic proportions in America's consciousness. Even Americans like myself, who were far too young to experience Vietnam, contributed to the cultural phenomenon it generated. We understood the contradictory attitudes to and representations of this event. On some subconscious level, we accepted the fact that our history texts insisted on identifying Vietnam as a "conflict" rather than a "war." We also accepted, with similar tractability, the fact that our history courses rarely reached this moment in time – that Vietnam remained, for the majority of our academic careers, little more than an entry in an index.

Yet, despite these educational gaps, we encountered the ghost of Vietnam on a routine basis. At the height of our exposure to popular culture (those much maligned '80s), the influence of this "conflict" permeated our music, our films, and our literature. The relationship my generation developed with Vietnam emerged as a strange amalgam of Bruce Springsteen and Bobbie Ann Mason, Oliver Stone and Dana Delaney, POW bracelets and Broadway musicals. Rock musicians and actors filled in the holes left by history texts and teachers. Consequently, our perception of the Vietnam war often lacked depth. We heard Natalie Merchant sing lyrics about the Vietnam Wall with the same detachment we heard our English teacher read Wilfred Owen's "Dulce et Decorum Est." For myself and many of my peers, the horror of My Lai seemed as distant as the Battle of Arras.

And then we read Tim O'Brien.

Few people possess the ability to make the past present. O'Brien is one of these few. Certainly, his tour of duty in Quang Ngai gave him a distinct advantage over Natalie Merchant and Bobbie Ann Mason. But it is the poetic quality of his prose that separates O'Brien from the other artists who have translated Vietnam into stories, novels, poems, and screenplays.

I read Going After Cacciato my sophomore year in college, because my boyfriend had read it for a lit class and liked it. My boyfriend majored in urban engineering and did not, as a general rule, enjoy the books assigned by his lit professors. So I read Cacciato over Christmas break, curious about this book that even urban engineers could enjoy. The novel tells the story of Cacciato, an infantry man who deserts in order to walk (from Southeast Asia) to Paris and participate in the peace talks. Paul Berlin, the book's narrator, has been ordered to pursue and capture Cacciato, and it is through his perspective that the reader comes to understand the title character. It was published in 1978 and won the National Book Award in a year that featured nominees such as John Irving's The World According to Garp and John Cheever's Stories. After I read the book, this seemed not only logical, but inevitable.

Cacciato is one of O'Brien's most popular works, partly because his language and syntax in it produce a seductive rhythm which forces the reader to participate in the story:

Liquid and shiny, a mix of rain and clay, the trail took them higher. Out of radio range, beyond the reach of artillery.

Cacciato eluded them but he left behind the wastes of his march: empty ration cans, bits of bread, a belt of gold-cased ammo dangling from a shrub, a leaking canteen, candy wrappers, worn rope. Hints that kept them going. Luring them on, plodding along the bed of a valley; once they saw his fire on a distant hill. Straight ahead was the frontier.

"He makes it that far," Doc said on the morning of the sixth day, pointing to the next line of mountains, "and he's gone, we can't touch him. He makes the border and it's bye-bye Cacciato."

"How far?"
Doc shrugged. "Six klicks, eight klicks. Not far."

"Then he's made it," Paul Berlin said.

"Maybe so."

The trail narrowed, then climbed, and a half hour later Stink spotted him.

He stood at the top of a small grassy hill, two hundred meters ahead. Loose and at ease, smiling, Cacciato already had the look of a civilian. Hands in his pockets, serene, not at all frightened. He might have been waiting for a bus.

The premise of the novel and the lush intensity of its prose enabled me to understand, for perhaps the first time, the enormity of Vietnam. I had a glimpse of the strange tension that roots inside a soldier and then spreads, multiplying like a cancer, until Vietnam – the war, the country, the people, the idea – becomes as essential to his existence as DNA. Which is not to say I suddenly understood Vietnam, with all its implications and ramifications, once I had read Cacciato. But this book narrowed the distance between me and this American archetype in a way no history lecture, or song, or movie, or television series ever had.

As a writer, O'Brien attempts to transform his personal experience in Vietnam into something that each reader can experience. He approaches this task as if it were a divine mission, or some debt he owes to his reader and to himself. A 1990 New York Times interview quotes him as saying "after each of my books about the war has appeared, I thought it might be the last, but I've stopped saying that to myself. There are just too many stories left to tell ... I know more war stories will come out. They have to." What O'Brien also knows is that not every writer understands the real nature and purpose of the war story, which he delineates in his short story "How to Tell a True War Story:"

A true war story is never moral. It does not instruct, nor encourage virtue, not suggest models of proper human behavior, nor restrain men from doing the things they have always done. If a story seems moral, do not believe it. If at the end of a war story you feel uplifted, or if you feel that some small bit of rectitude has been salvaged from the larger waste, then you have been made the victim of a very old and terrible lie. There is no rectitude whatsoever. There is no virtue. As a first rule of thumb, therefore, you can tell a true war story by its absolute and uncompromising allegiance to obscenity and evil. Listen to Rat Kiley. Cooze, he says. He does not say bitch. He certainly does not say woman, or girl. He says cooze. Then he spits and stares. He's nineteen years old – it's too much for him – so he looks at you with those big gentle killer eyes and says cooze, because his friend is dead, and because it's so incredibly sad and true ...

Since his memoir If I Die in a Combat Zone, Box Me Up and Ship Me Home (published in 1973), O'Brien has written extensively, though not exclusively, about Vietnam. True, not all his work has met with the same critical acclaim as Going After Cacciato or The Things They Carried. Tomcat in Love in particular received several scathing reviews. Many people, including O'Brien himself, have questioned his commitment to this subject matter. Still, I feel it is a grave mistake to dismiss him as a literary version of the one-trick pony.

It has been said that all obsession is inherently pure and noble because, at the exact moment of obsession, a person exists entirely outside the self, focused only on the object of obsession. To be sure, we can attribute many scientific, artistic, and technological achievements to the private obsessions of individuals. There is a form of obsession that compels a person to pursue some elusive thing with a quixotic passion. Perhaps it is just this sort of desire that inspires Tim O'Brien to constantly refine and redefine his craft, to hone his prose to a razor-edge, and to believe that to tell the true war story is both dulce and decorum.

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