November 19, 2012
At the beginning of term, I had told my students not to expect replies to emails late on Sunday nights when they are often working on their assignments and I am watching Homeland. Throughout the first season of this compelling drama, my husband and I were riveted. We had friends over to participate, sharing a meal that had to be over long before the 10 p.m. show time. We set the TV to the channel in advance so we wouldn’t miss an instant of the logo or the first scene.
And, then, during the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, we met with some Arab-American friends for a coffee and talked about the show. They were deeply concerned that the educated elite in the United States, including our re-elected President, were so hooked on it. It is, after all, an adaptation of a successful Israeli series. Transposing the venue from Israel to the United States has changed the show in many ways, but the shadow of the Israeli scripts is still there and they have a clear and troublesome political agenda. And, now, the escalation of violence in Gaza, a great and continuing tragedy for everyone.
As writers, what are we to think of a show that is so well written and so engaging, yet so offensive to our Arab-American citizens? What is our responsibility? Does anything we say or think about the show matter? If we agree with the assertion that there is something morally wrong with the portrait of Arabs in the show, shall we boycott? Write letters to the producers? To the White House?
As writers, we are the custodians of language. Language matters. How do we speak about “the other,” whoever that other may be? How do we define ourselves in relation to that other? When do we become the other ourselves?
November 18, 2012
After long silence, I begin again.
—William Cowper to William Unwin, 3 July 1786
A student this term is reading history—Erik Larson, David McCullough—and is struck by the eloquence of the primary source material that has informed their work—letters and diaries. But, alas, her admiration segues into a lament as, feeling intimidated rather than inspired, she reflects, dear reader, on her own attenuated correspondence.
What has changed since Abigail and Henry Adams wrote to one another during their long periods of separation?
It’s an interesting question and a big one. The answer, in part, is embedded in the question: In the digital age, when do we ever suffer long periods of separation from anyone? We may be physically separated, of course, but we remain—always and constantly—virtually connected. And rather than settling by the fireplace late at night to record our thoughts in a journal or to write a letter to a dear friend in ceremonial reply to one that has been received—the ceremony being a promise of reply—we flag an email and reply quickly when we have time.
So that’s one answer—a predictable one—given the imperatives of our digital age. More importantly for a writer, however, is the ease with which we have given up long form formal letter writing and the challenge of retrieving the practice of it. But first, questions: Is it necessary? Is it possible? And, if it is necessary, is it possible?
When I left England some years ago to live in the U.S. again, I promised more than one person that I would correspond regularly, that each letter would be answered in kind. We could talk on the phone but, as writers, a continuing dialogue in writing seemed important. And I was active: I wrote a lot, I went to the post office a lot. Until email. Once that was installed it didn’t take long for the ink to dry out in my italic-nibbed pens.
And I miss the languor of those days. Even as I write rapidly on this computer, I long for them. An opportunity to discourse in words with friends, to catch up on their lives and my own in a slow way, and then to save the correspondence, to return to it, or to bequeath it to an historian as many writers have done. Indeed, high profile contemporary writers donate their papers to libraries or sell their letters and journals to libraries. The fact that they have written these letters and diaries, and saved them, is of great importance. And I know one or two who still cherish their fountain pens, and use them. I wonder what I’ve done with mine?
November 12, 2012
I went to see “Lincoln,” last night—screenplay by Steven Spielberg, script by Tony Kushner, Lincoln played by Daniel Day Lewis, Mary Todd by Sally Field—an all-star line-up to which we’d have to include imminent Oscar nominations for make-up artist and cinematography, costume designer, and much more. As it is Spielberg, there is more than one tear rending moment, none gratuitous, and no distortions of text as in the musical finale of “The Color Purple.” It is Kushner’s script that shines, an adaptation of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s, “Team of Rivals,” one of our re-elected President’s favorites. I have not read that book yet but I ordered it for my Kindle as soon as I got home and began a biography of Mary Todd Lincoln which has been on my to-be-read Kindle stack for a while. Mary Todd's reputation has been restored, the accusations of insanity mostly expunged. She was, we now learn, an intelligent Victorian First Lady constricted by the expectations of her time: she didn’t have a submissive personality, she wept grandly after the loss of three children, she sat in the balcony watching the proceedings on the floor of the House of Representatives where, of course, there were no women politicians present, she had strong opinions which she expressed vociferously. Strange to think that it wasn’t so long ago that women journalists were relegated to that selfsame balcony. See Nan Robertson’s book about those girl journalists. It’s an eye opener:
It is at times like these—inspired by a well-made script and a well-made movie—that I miss a now defunct website called readerville.com, a gathering of readers and writers. One of the threads was about immersion reading. Certainly Spielberg and Kushner must have read all there is to read about Lincoln as they developed this project. The film has so much exposition, in fact, that one could call it scholarly. Yet the dramatic tension in every scene, relieved by Lincoln’s stories and the softness of his personality as rendered by a fine actor, keep the story moving to its denouement—the passage of the 13th Amendment and Lincoln’s assassination. Though we know the ending before the first frame has passed, it doesn’t matter.