norbert blei | the politics of literature

7 09 2008

NOTES from the UNDERGROUND… No.149 | September 7, 2008


An Introduction, Confession, Explanation, Claims, Disclaims…and So It Goes…

(Kurt Vonnegut, Thou Shouldst Be Living at This Hour)

I used to deal with politics in various online writings: Blei-Lines, The Mourning News, Word Bites, etc. …but finally let it go. For any writer seriously devoted to crafting fiction, poetry, personal essays, getting into political word-slinging will eventually do you in, eat you alive. Turn you into the very thing you hate.

We all know the other guy’s an idiot, the other side is destroying our constitution, our county…you have the right to do this but not the right to do that and if you don’t think the way I do, you’re the enemy. The word is out, the deck is stacked, the system is in a shambles, the culture is corrupt, nobody’s telling the truth!…someone has to shout: “Fire!”

To get my life back, I had to diminish the sound. Spread the word in other ways,

Continue to mine what it means to be human. THAT path. THAT way. What makes us both idiots and saints in the same body/mind. Re-awaken the spirit as few politicians do. THAT”S what matters.

With the piece on censorship I sent out yesterday (mainly to my e-mail list), I saw an opening in the politics of the present moment where I might “get back into it” occasionally, just a little, by bringing to light situations where politics and literature crossed a certain line. And the fact (fact) that a Mayor in Alaska (who happened to be thrust into the national spotlight as a candidate for the vice presidency of the United States last week) had issues with what should or should not be read in the Mayor’s own city library…well…it needs to be made note of. Especially since the mayor isn’t answering any questions—or allowed to answer any questions by party handlers. (Now, that’s a HOT remark…the kind I don’t want to get into as I consider occasionally exploring this new, sub-topic in NOTES FROM THE UNDERGROUND: The Politics of Literature.)

We all know the problem with the web is too much freedom. By now, almost anyone who uses the internet has been burned by one story or another that he or she felt was too good to be true and just had to pass on to someone else. Anyone can say just about any damn thing he wants in cyber space. (No different than a number of talk shows.) And frequently does. And you can “Believe it or not!” As Ripley once gave the reader a choice..

Freedom inevitably generates irresponsibility. Take the ‘truth’ of so many political ads on TV. But wait…I’m getting off-topic again.

Okay…a couple of people challenged that reading list I sent out yesterday. (I did too). Did such a list exist? (Some of the titles and authors were even misspelled. I corrected them.) Where did the Mayor find the list? Or was it handed to her by someone, some other organization, some religious group?? How was it presented to the City Librarian? Was it?

All valid questions. Yes, it’s an old list. But censorship is an old issue—still fought every day in America. I battled it when I taught high school English. Many communities and schools are still battling it today. (Just Google the word. You’ll find enough to read on the issue from now till the next election.)

My main concern was the fact that a Mayor in America (now running for national office) tried to fire a qualified librarian of the City Library because she refused to remove some books that the Mayor wanted off the shelves.

There are lists and lists of books in America, constantly generated by one group or another that wants to deny any reader his right to read any damn book he pleases. And when any one, including a public official (paid by the taxpayer) says, “No. You are not allowed to read THAT book, my good citizen-American” That’s a problem. And, I would suggest, a really BIG problem for anyone seeking higher office in this country to represent our constitutional rights.

Below, is the original blog sent yesterday…updated with various links. If this is NOT the list, my apologies. If this list is incomplete, my apologies. If the Mayor would finally speak up, answer some questions from the real American public, tell us the truth about this book banning incident (and a few other things)…my applause! —Norbert Blei

P.S. A number of people also wrote asking that I link the original e-mail posting to one of my websites, so they might more easily forward the information. With this posting, that has now been done. AND, there will be further, additional postings to NOTES FROM THE UNDERGROUND: THE POLITICS OF LITERATURE, when the spirit (and information) move me. –Norbert Blei


While Sarah was Mayor of Wasilla she tried to fire our highly respected City Librarian because the Librarian refused to consider removing from the library some books that Sarah wanted removed. City residents rallied to the defense of the City Librarian and against Palin’s attempt at out-and-out censorship, so Palin backed down and withdrew her termination letter. People who fought her attempt to oust the Librarian are on her enemies list to this day.Anne KilKenny, resident of Alaska

A list of books Sarah Palin attempted to ban in Alaska

A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess
A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle
Annie on My Mind by Nancy Garden
As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner
Blubber by Judy Blume
Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson
Canterbury Tales by Chaucer
Carrie by Stephen King
Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
Christine by Stephen King
Confessions by Jean-Jacques Rousseau
Cujo by Stephen King
Curses, Hexes, and Spells by Daniel Cohen
Daddy’s Roommate by Michael Willhoite
Day No Pigs Would Die by Robert Peck
Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller
Decameron by Boccaccio
East of Eden by John Steinbeck
Fallen Angels by Walter Myers
Fanny Hill (Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure) by John Cleland
Flowers For Algernon by Daniel Keyes
Forever by Judy Blume
Grendel by John Gardner
Halloween ABC by Eve Merriam
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by J.K. Rowling
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by J.K. Rowling
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by J.K. Rowling
Have to Go by Robert Munsch
Heather Has Two Mommies by Leslea Newman
How to Eat Fried Worms by Thomas Rockwell
Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
Impressions edited by Jack Booth
In the Night Kitchen by Maurice Sendak
It’s Okay if You Don’t Love Me by Norma Klein
James and the Giant Peach by Roald Dahl
Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D.H. Lawrence
Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman
Little Red Riding Hood by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm
Lord of the Flies by William Golding
Love is One of the Choices by Norma Klein
Lysistrata by Aristophanes
More Scary Stories in the Dark by Alvin Schwartz
My Brother Sam Is Dead by James Lincoln Collier and Christopher Collier
My House by Nikki Giovanni
My Friend Flicka by Mary O’Hara
Night Chills by Dean Koontz
Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck
On My Honor by Marion Dane Bauer
One Day in The Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexander Solzhenitsyn
One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey
One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Ordinary People by Judith Guest
Our Bodies, Ourselves by Boston Women’s Health Collective
Prince of Tides by Pat Conroy
Revolting Rhymes by Ronald Dahl
Scary Stories 3: More Tales to Chill Your Bones by Alvin Schwartz
Scary Stories in the Dark by Alvin Schwartz
Separate Peace by John Knowles
Silas Marner by George Eliot
Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.
Tarzan of the Apes by Edgar Rice Burroughs
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain
The Bastard by John Jakes
The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier
The Color Purple by Alice Walker
The Devil’s Alternative by Frederick Forsyth
The Figure in the Shadows by John Bellairs
The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
The Great Gilly Hopkins by Katherine Paterson
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
The Headless Cupid by Zilpha Snyder
The Learning Tree by Gordon Parks
The Living Bible by William C. Bower
The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare
The New Teenage Body Book by Kathy McCoy and Charles Wibbelsman
The Pigman by Paul Zindel
The Seduction of Peter S. by Lawrence Sanders
The Shining by Stephen King
The Witches by Roald Dahl
The Witches of Worm by Zilpha Snyder
Then Again, Maybe I Won’t by Judy Blume
To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare
Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary by the Merriam-Webster Editorial Staff
Witches, Pumpkins, and Grinning Ghosts: The Story of the Halloween Symbols by Edna Barth

FURTHER (directly/indirectly related) FOLLOW-UPS:,0,1290251.story

And in case you missed this one (in the Chicago Tribune)…read & witness the YouTube video



hemingway | mailer | vonnegut | afterlives

29 04 2008

NOTES from the UNDERGROUND… No.141| April 29, 2008


Hemingway’s Rage at Hollywood

April 26, 2008 — ERNEST Hemingway and Hollywood had a tempestuous relationship – but his utter hatred of the movies made from his famed novels is now just coming to light.

In “The Good Life According to Hemingway,” out next month, A.E. Hotchner, who traveled the globe with him, bares a series of never-before-published slaps Hemingway took at the film business.

When producer David O. Selznick crowed that his wife, Jennifer Jones, was starring in “A Farewell to Arms” and he’d pay Hemingway a $50,000 bonus from any profits, the novelist wrote back: “If by some miracle, your movie, which stars 41-year-old Mrs. Selznick portraying 24-year-old Catherine Barkley, does earn $50,000, you should have all $50,000 changed into nickels at your local bank and shove them up your [bleep] until they came out of your ears.”

Darryl F. Zanuck, the boss of 20th Century Fox, was trashed when he asked Hemingway to shorten the title of “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber,” which starred Gregory Peck. Hotchner quotes Hemingway, “I said, you want something short and exciting that will catch the eye of both sexes, right?” He then reeled off the first letters of Hollywood studio names that together spelled out the F-word. “That should fit all the marquees and you can’t beat it as a sex symbol.” Zanuck titled the film “The Macomber Affair.”

Of “The Sun Also Rises,” Hemingway raged: “Any picture in which Errol Flynn is the best actor is its own worst enemy.” As for “The Old Man and the Sea,” “I sat through all of that movie, numb. Spencer Tracy looked like a fat, very rich actor playing a fisherman.”

Hemingway, who committed suicide in 1961, snarked that in a love scene in “For Whom the Bell Tolls,”“didn’t take off his coat. That’s one hell of a way for a guy to make love, with his coat on – in a sleeping bag.” Gary Cooper (from N.Y. Post)

Mailer’s Longtime Mistress Sells Papers to Harvard

by Jay Lindsay, Associated Press Writer

BOSTON — An actress and writer who said she was Norman Mailer’s former longtime mistress has sold papers that include lengthy accounts of their sex life and hand-edited drafts of her writing to Harvard University, Mailer’s alma mater.

Carole Mallory saved seven boxes of material she said she collected during Mailer’s weekly visits between 1983 to 1992, while Mailer was married to his sixth and last wife, Norris Church.

“We’d have a writing lesson, we’d make love and then go to lunch in whatever order that would be, and I saved all the writing lessons,” said Mallory, 66 “I wanted him to teach me to be a writer. He was one of our greatest writers in America.”

Mallory, who appeared in movies including The Stepford Wives and modeled, won’t say how much she was paid for materials, and neither will Harvard. The school received the papers within the last month, said Beth Brainard, spokeswoman for the Harvard library She said the school pursued the papers because of Mailer’s importance as a writer, and because he’s a Harvard grad.

“It’s important to have Mailer represented in some way in the collection,” Brainard said. Mailer, who died last November at age 84, sold his own archives to the University of Texas for $2.5 million.

Mallory, who lives in Jeffersonville, Pa., said she waited to release his papers until after his death out of respect for Mailer and his family. She said she decided to sell the papers because she “knew they were valuable,” and also wanted them to be a part of history.

The collection includes photos, transcripts of interviews with Mailer, handwritten edits of Mallory’s work and scraps from writing lessons he gave. Mallory still recalls the principles Mailer emphasized, such as: keep the dialogue punchy; stay away from adverbs, don’t lecture the reader.

The collection also contains Mallory’s unpublished memoir, including a 20-page sex scene with Mailer, and a 50-page sex scene she said was based on her relationship with Mailer that she wrote for one of her books. She said Mailer had challenged her to write one that long.

“I don’t believe in shame,” Mallory said. “I believe in making love and love. I’m not going to go around and harbor secrets or shame about… loving someone. And I don’t think sex is something to be ashamed of.” (from USA Today)

And So It Went

Kurt Vonnegut, in a final collection, reflects on his distaste for war and embrace of individuality By Dan Wakefield | April 13, 2008 Armageddon in Retrospect: And Other New and Unpublished Writings on War and Peace By Kurt Vonnegut Putnam, 232 pp., illustrated, $24.95

“Writing was a spiritual exercise for my father, the only thing he really believed in. … His models were Jonah, Lincoln, Melville and Twain.” So begins the moving and illuminating introduction to this posthumous collection of Kurt Vonnegut’s work by his son Mark. A writer himself (“The Eden Express”) as well as a pediatrician in Greater Boston, Mark Vonnegut tells us his father “had a hard time letting himself be happy, but couldn’t quite hide the glee he got from writing well. … It wasn’t until the Iraq War and the end of his life that he became sincerely gloomy.”

Over lunch in New York three years ago Kurt told me he didn’t want to write anymore, that he felt his writing had always been based on “optimism, and pride in my country. I don’t have that now.” He had become, like the title of his next collection, “A Man Without A Country.”

One of Vonnegut’s last works was a talk he didn’t live to deliver last April in his hometown of Indianapolis to kick off what the city had declared “The Year of Vonnegut.” At the start of that speech, which is included in this book, he noted: “In only three years time, during World War Two, I went from Private to Corporal, a rank once held by Napoleon and Adolf Hitler.”

It was in the crucible of that war that much of the message of Vonnegut’s work was formed, and it can be seen here in microcosm in the three-page letter he wrote his family on May 29, 1945, after having been declared “missing in action” while a prisoner of war in a Dresden work camp. He told how many of his captured company died when they were herded into scalding showers after days of starvation, thirst, and exposure, “but I didn’t”; how the American and RAF firebombing of Dresden destroyed the city and killed 250,000 people, “but not me”; how the prisoners who were evacuated after General George Patton took Leipzig were strafed by Russian planes and many were killed, “but not me.”

One can hear in these cadences the future trademark that served as punctuation in Vonnegut’s work: “So it goes.” Vonnegut survived the Allied destruction of Dresden in an underground meat locker that became, in his famous fiction, Slaughterhouse Five. One piece in this book, “Wailing Shall Be in All Streets,”“ghoulish mission” recounts the nightmare of the saturation bombing of Dresden, and how in its aftermath Vonnegut and his fellow POWs were given the to search for bodies “and carry them to mass funeral pyres in the parks. . . . There was not enough labor to do it nicely, so a man with a flame-thrower was sent down instead and he cremated them where they lay.”

The short stories that compose the bulk of this book seem born of that experience – as does all of his work – in direct or thematic ways. In “Guns Before Butter” a trio of American POWs deal with their near-starvation rations by exchanging recipes and describing their favorite meals. “Food was the only thing on the P.W.’s pale level of existence that could have any effect on their spirits. Patton was a hundred miles away.”

In “The Commandant’s Desk” a Czechoslovakia woodworker and his daughter are subjected to the demands and insults of their passing conquerors – German, Russian, and American. The woodworker, a World War I veteran, comments that “when I hear of a division of war-lovers from an enlisted man, maybe I will believe it, provided the man is sober and has been shot at. If there are such divisions, perhaps they should be preserved between wars in dry ice.”

These stories are “mostly undated and all unpublished,” but references in some to the American-Russian standoffs of the Cold War suggest that many are early works, ones that simply didn’t fit the mold of the 1950s magazine fiction that was Vonnegut’s first market. They are no less accomplished or interesting for that, and will come as a final gift for fans.

In his later years, Vonnegut channeled much of his creative energy into painting and drawing, including posters with his thoughts and messages. One of these constitutes the last page of the book:

“Where do I get my ideas from? You might as well have asked that of Beethoven. He was goofing around in Germany like everybody else, and all of a sudden this stuff came gushing out of him.

“It was music.

“I was goofing around like everybody else in Indiana, and all of a sudden stuff came gushing out. It was disgust with civilization.”

It was disgust with the kind of civilization that reduced Dresden “to crushed stone and embers; disemboweled her with high explosives and cremated her with incendiaries,” the kind of civilization that in another era brought “shock and awe” to Baghdad.

The dark irony that lies beneath Vonnegut’s wry, satiric work is always in the service of the individual – Billy Pilgrim surviving the firebombing of Dresden, Eliot Rosewater giving his fortune away to help particular people with their problems – and against the system, the destructive side of civilization, represented here by the conqueror Robert The Horrible in Vonnegut’s neat medieval morality tale, “The Unicorn Trap.”

The story’s hero, Elmer the serf, resists the conqueror’s offer to make him a tax collector, part of the corrupt system, at the risk of his own neck. He explains his philosophy to his family: “The wreckers against the builders! There’s the whole story of life!”

Novelist Dan Wakefield is writer in residence at Florida International University. [from THE BOSTON GLOBE]