Starry-Eyed Women

In connection with the publication of Dava Sobel’s latest book, The Glass Universe, about the women who photographed the sky in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries at Harvard University, here’s an appreciative sketch of their discoveries, and of the discovery of the paper traces of their work they left behind.

This is good work going on, the recounting of the contribution of these women to science.  We’ve had told to us in recent times the story of the women who worked at NASA in Hidden Figures; now this, from Sobel.  One can find without too much trouble books about women’s contributions in industry during World War II.  About the only story I can think of that hasn’t been told in full is the story of the women who turned the dials at Oak Ridge, TN, during the early days of the race to develop a nuclear bomb.  Richard Rhodes and Nuel Pharr Davis have a few paragraphs on them in The Making of the Atomic Bomb and Lawrence and Oppenheimer, but that’s about all.  They were there, too.

Books like The Glass Universe and Hidden Figures offer positive encouragement to women to enter into (and stay in) the STEM fields, if that is their desire.  I say “positive encouragement” because there is such a thing as “negative encouragement,” as in, “Do this, or there won’t be any women in science at all,” or “Study this subject, because we need more work on it.”  Graduate students are subject to such “encouragement” all the time.  Some of it is well meant, but a great deal of it is motivated by the desire of academic departments to show increased enrollments in certain fields and to maintain funding.  The actual wishes of the students may be ignored.

As researchers, women are more patient and determined than men, qualities that must come to the forefront when studying time-lapse photographs of star fields or the slides of a microscope.  Add to these qualities the general sense that women know their own bodies better than most men know theirs, and one can see (at least from my point of view) why having more women in fields like astronomy and biology–two fields I love–would be an enormous benefit to all of us as we learn more and more about how the body works.  The only rule I have for such matters is the rule I would apply to myself:  women must choose the work freely, without coercion.  That’s the only way to foster the free and happy minds that make the intuitive leaps to relativity theory, string theory, or to the thousands of discoveries of the processes and the materials that have shaped the modern world.



Hayden Carruth

August 3 was the birthday of poet Hayden Carruth, who died in 2008 after a long, hardscrabble life.  There was no time on the third to observe his birthday, but he shares it with mine, and I hadn’t heard his name in quite a number of years.

Carruth was the editor of one of best poetry anthologies I know, a volume called The Voice That Is Great Within Us.  I became familiar with it in Creative Writing class and in the Intro to Poetry classes I was teaching in the 1980s, and I recommend it to you now, for your own pleasure, a treasure-trove of the finest in free verse and metered forms.

What I did not know in first reading the anthology was how hard Carruth’s own life had been.  The Wikipedia sketch of him will give you some idea of what he went through but, whatever impression it makes upon you, I hope it will eliminate any false notions you might still have about poets being effeminate, dainty little creatures who write poems about birds and beasts and flowers and trees.  Keats could get away with such subjects because he was a genius, but I remind you that he was also a surgeon’s assistant, whose job it was to sop up the gore with a bucket.  He knew what life was, Keats did, and so did Carruth.

Carruth’s subjects were the wild creatures of nature, the lonely and downtrodden of human life.  It was thought by many that there wasn’t any “poetry” in such lives, no elegance amid the pain; but Carruth found it the same way Steinbeck did in prose, and he showed others how to find it.  Wendell Berry, whose birthday happens to be today, credits Carruth with showing him how, and Carruth’s peers thought highly of him.


What To Keep, What To Throw Away

[Note:  Here’s a New York Times article, with pictures, of the manuscript changes made by some contemporary poets to their work–a useful accompaniment to the post below.]

Sarah Manguso offers us a short piece on a problem we all face in the digital age:  our choice of what to keep and what to throw away among the many drafts of our writing.

You all know I’m a big fan of series like the Norton Critical Editions of authors like Henry James, Herman Melville and others.  The textual appendices in those editions provide the evidence for what got changed in their books, and we can often infer the “why” of the change from the author’s final choice.  Nowadays, though, traces of the first thoughts authors have can be erased with a click, and we will never know what they were unless he or she shares them.

I keep a computer file of lines or scenes I want to use in my novel, but it is separate from the file containing the novel itself.  In my opinion, it’s dangerous to throw anything away, because you might need it, even if you think you won’t.  For example, over a decade ago, I had a detailed outline of the novel I’m presently working on.  Much has changed about it, but there were plot points I wanted to use.  I can’t use ’em, because the outline is gone.  I must have deleted it or moved it to a place I can’t find.  Drives me crazy sometimes, thinking about it.  My advice?  Don’t throw anything away until you’re done.

On the other hand, if keeping fugitive lines and paragraphs around is a hindrance to you, get rid of them ruthlessly, and press ahead with your work as it presently exists.  Your judgment will tell you what to save and what to discard.  Keep the discarded material safely to one side, and work with as clean a manuscript as you can.  You can always cut and paste additional material in or out later on.

Generally, editing involves leaving out stuff that doesn’t belong there.  There are occasions, however, when adding material expands a passage and makes clear why the passage is there in the first place.  Every writer will add to her work, as necessary, and there are many examples of films that have been improved, not diminished, by the addition of material.  C.D.B. Bryan’s short story “So Much Unfairness Of Things,” was expanded into the novel P.S. Wilkinson, about the consequences of a cheating scandal at a prep school in the 1950s.  Daniel Keyes expanded his famous 1959 short story “Flowers For Algernon” into a novel seven years after the story was published.  Among films, Batman vs. Superman:  Dawn of Justice is a much better, clearer film in the extended edition than in the theatrical release.  So is the director’s cut of Aliens (1986), although the theatrical release of that one was superbly edited.  Do not be afraid to add to your work, as well as take away from it.


James Baldwin

It’s James Baldwin’s birthday.  He was born this day in 1924 and died in 1987–way too soon by our lengthening standard of life, but if a man or woman lives with the intensity of thought that Baldwin did, life is going to be too short.  It’s remarkable he lasted as long as he did.

The writer’s task is to see, and to help others see.  No one did that more effectively than Baldwin.  To be sure, he trained his eye on whites in America, and on the power structure that emerged out of the Jim Crow laws of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to do battle against the slow march toward freedom for everyone, but he also trained his eye on African-Americans themselves, analyzing in clear, unyielding prose why they behave toward whites the way they do, and the consequences of that behavior.

His debate with William F. Buckley, Jr. was always a bit of a sham–an intellectual exhibition match.  Baldwin won it, but it was a victory akin to the aged Clarence Darrow triumphing over the even more aged William Jennings Bryan in the Scopes trial.  By 1965, Buckley had already started moving away from hardline positions on the right of most social issues, and Baldwin already knew that genuine change–the acceptance of African-Americans as full, useful participants in the social contract–was a much more complex affair than any debate could reveal.

He was at his best in prose, that wonderful, deft, accurate language he used to pierce all the excuses we use for not acknowledging the mistakes of the past, and to lance the boils of all the miseries we’ve heaped upon ourselves because we fear what may happen if we’re honest with each other.

It would be easy, because of what happened in Ferguson, and in Baltimore and in a dozen other places over the last five years, to say that nothing’s changed.  But that would be a lie.  We are better–far better–as a people than we were in 1950 or 1960.  I do not speak of the country’s leadership, always a transitory thing anyway, shifting every two years and every four.  I speak of us–you and me–living our lives in our neighborhoods, in our businesses, in our schools.  We are better, more tolerant of human frailty, less tolerant of bigotry, no matter what the fringe groups happen to say or do.

We owe some of that newfound spirit of toleration to James Baldwin.  It was he who gave us the language we use to communicate with each other on matters of race and social equality.  What we do with that language is up to us.  He would be disappointed in some of the things that have gone on since 1987, but none of those events would have surprised him.  We do the same things over and over; we make the same mistakes.  What would please him, though, is that we do talk to each other.  And slowly–very slowly–we are learning to talk about the right things.


Sam Shepard

Books Here And There acknowledges the passing of playwright and actor Sam Shepard, who has died of ALS at the age of seventy-three.

Of his many plays exploring love, marriage, work, and the meaning of being a man in the world, “True West”, essentially a two-character drama about estranged brothers trying to write a script, is, I believe, the most approachable of Shepherd’s works.  He was also known for portraying test pilot Chuck Yeager in the film version of Tom Wolfe’s book, The Right StuffYeager is still alive.


An Unhealthy Relationship

Emily Van Duyne writes a strong essay asking the question,”Why are we so unwilling to take Sylvia Plath at her word?” and answering it.  In getting to the evidence that provokes that question in the first place, Van Duyne highlights the several instances of marital infidelity on the part of Ted Hughes–facts I did not bring into account in my post on the subject of their relationship back in April.  One might believe Hughes engaged in those affairs because of his wife’s instability, but one of his friends, the literary critic A. Alvarez, claimed that Hughes was constitutionally-incapable of remaining faithful, so we are left to choose between two more-or-less equally-plausible possibilities.

More disturbing, however, are Van Duyne’s allegations that Hughes was more than just the philandering husband.  He was, in her view, an abusive husband; and Sylvia Plath may well have been an abusive wife.  If there is an answer to the question of why we don’t believe Plath’s claims about her marriage, it lies in her behavior before the marriage and in her behavior and Hughes’ behavior within the marriage.

Plath had, evidently, attempted suicide at least once before she ever met Hughes.  He, evidently, never saw a skirt he didn’t like.  The two of them were combustible together.  Whatever the precise dynamics of their relationship were (and no one knows exactly what they were), they very likely abused each other.  Nothing that I know of justifies physical abuse in a relationship or verbal abuse (he, striking her, strangling her on their wedding night, wishing she were dead; she, biting him and making claims against him she knows that others cannot verify), but we do know such relationships exist.  The longer such couples stay together, the more psychologically-dependent upon each other they become, and the more potential there is for deliberate (and accidental) verbal abuse.  Plath’s suicide cut short those possibilities for them, of course, but she and Hughes were already well down the road of self-destruction.

The easy thing to do is to say that their relationship is none of our business and that we should let the dead rest.  But Hughes and Plath herself have made that choice impossible by choosing to be public poets and public figures.  It was they who sharply reminded us in their verse how excruciatingly-hard some relationships can be, and how difficult it is to come to terms with our own talents and insecurities.  It was they who started talking about things we do not talk about, and they who insisted we join the conversation.  We do not have the right to be voyeurs, but their poetry made us so involuntarily.  If we must carry the weight of the literary history of the Confessional Poets around in our minds,  we do have the right to know what happened in their relationship, to know where the tortured balance of power lay,  if only to learn a bit more about how to avoid engaging in such behavior ourselves.

[Postscript, July 31, 2017:  In regard to paragraph three, “nothing justifies abuse. . .”, that is true.  Nothing justified it in the 1950s and 60s; nothing justifies it now.  It is fair to point out, however, that far less was known or understood about mental illness in the 1950s than we know today.  Partly because of that medical ignorance and lack of sensitivity, the social culture of the 1950s and the 1960s was far less interventionist than ours is.  One didn’t interfere in a couple’s marriage unless lives were immediately, presently in danger.  It wasn’t done.  Friends might pull you aside and offer counsel, but that was it.  As the (supposedly) more stable partner, it was Hughes’s task to shepherd Plath through her many storms.  Yet, if Van Duyne’s allegations are some day verified, we all may wonder just how stable Hughes himself was in this period.]


The Girl Who Made It Go

I just bumped into the obituary notice for Flo Steinberg on Wikipedia.  If you don’t know who she was, she was Stan Lee’s secretary at Marvel Comics during the heyday of all the creations we’ve come to know and love:  Iron Man, Captain America, the Fantastic Four, and all the rest.

In the 1960s and early 1970s, the business end of Marvel was pretty much a one-man operation–Stan Lee–while the artists and letterers worked in another room.  They were a loose, happy bunch.  You could tell that by the tone of the “Bullpen Bulletins” Lee and others would write in various issues of the comics.  Sometimes, those “Bullpen Bulletins” were my favorite feature of the comic, because (a) I could get a peek at what adventures were forthcoming in the mag, and (b) I could get a sense of what guys like Lee and Jack Kirby were like.

Flo Steinberg got mentioned in a lot of those bulletins.  She was pretty in that perky, 1960s East Coast way, and a walking bundle of energy, to boot.  She handled all of the correspondence with fans that Lee didn’t have time for.  She handled other publicity matters, too, along with Lee’s schedule and deadline details of each week’s issues.  In case you don’t realize it, that was a lot of work.  If anyone deserved the encouragement of the word “EXCELSIOR!” shouted to her every week, Fabulous Flo deserved it.

Marvel Comics exploded into popularity in the 1960s, kicking DC Comics right in the ass, in much the same way that Prince came along in the late 80s and kicked Michael Jackson right where it hurts.  Both Marvel and Prince succeeded for the same reason:  they created edgier stories in their comics and their music than their competition, but their artistry–the music, the art–behind those stories was every bit as good.  Steinberg was there through much of this, assuring the fans who wrote in that both their hard-earned quarters and their readership mattered to everyone at Marvel Comics.  Although I did not like the animated series of either the Fantastic Four or Spider Man when they showed up on the Saturday morning cartoons in the 1970s (I thought it was too much, too soon), it did not surprise me at all that Lee sent them up as trial balloons, an attempt to build on the success of his ventures in print.

Nevertheless, I was surprised by the modest success of The Incredible Hulk on CBS in the late 70s and early 80s.  Joe Harnell’s simple piano theme–just a few notes–and Bill Bixby’s melancholy portrayal of David Bruce Banner made that show far more watchable than it should have been.  Lee was behind that show, too, pushing and tweaking, and trying to find the elements in his characters that would appeal to a mass audience.

When Lee finally did hit it big with 2008’s Iron Man, his reaction was much the same as the recently-deceased actor Red West said of his own career:  “I had to work fifty years to become an overnight success.”  Success could not have happened to a nicer guy than Stan Lee, and Flo Steinberg was a big part of that success.  It’s true that Lee had to sue the corporate types who eventually ran Marvel in order to get his proper share of money, and I do not know if Flo Steinberg was a party to that suit, but I do know that Lee always prized her at her worth.  She was loved; she was valued, and Lee probably misses her right now as much as he misses his own recently-deceased wife.