Off the Shelves

Fiction
Chicago, 1886
by Theodore Hamm

Martin Duberman, Haymarket: A Novel
(Seven Stories, 2003)

On May 4, 1886, Chicago’s anarchists and radical labor leaders gathered in Haymarket Square to protest ongoing police violence against the movement for the eight-hour workday. Although some leaflets in circulation at the event called "workingmen … to arms!!!," most of the speakers at the rally discouraged any resort to violence. At the end of the evening, however, labor radical Samuel Fielden declared that workers should "have nothing more to do with the law, except to throttle it until it makes its last kick." Within minutes, the police ordered the rally to disperse. As Fielden stepped down from the stage, a bomb went off and the police opened fire. When the smoke cleared, eight policemen, and at least that many protesters, lay dead.

What made Haymarket more than just another bloody episode in the labor wars of the Gilded Era was the aftermath. Despite a notable lack of evidence directly tying any of them to the bombing incident, eight anarchists were sentenced to death for a "conspiracy" to murder one of the police officers. Anarchy—and even more to the point, simply the use of incendiary words—was the real culprit, argued Illinois State’s Attorney Julius Grinnell. In November of 1887, four of the eight Haymarket radicals were executed.

In Haymarket, Martin Duberman retells the story of the event through the eyes of two key participants, Albert and Lucy Parsons. Albert, former Confederate soldier turned radical newspaper editor and labor leader, was sentenced as one of the Haymarket eight. His wife Lucy, a Texan of mixed-race (black, Indian, and Mexican) background, was not charged, but easily could have been. In The Alarm, a labor paper Albert edited, Lucy one year earlier had called for Chicago’s "tramps," as in the homeless poor, to take up arms against the city’s rich. Haymarket is as much a story of Albert and Lucy’s radicalization as it is a tale of the notorious event and its aftermath.

This is the first novel written by Duberman, a historian, biographer (of Paul Robeson and James Russell Lowell, among others) and playwright who is perhaps best known for his writings on gay politics. Given the author’s background and the choice of subject, it may not be useful to simply call Haymarket a work of historical fiction. So many types of stories fall within this broad category that it’s not certain whether the term has precise meaning. There are stories about little people living through great events (e.g. Cold Mountain), those that humanize the great figures of American history (such as the work of Gore Vidal), or those that combine creatures great and small (think Doctorow). In most instances, the author is not so interested in making "historical" points, and instead is more concerned with either conveying "timeless truths" or driving home a contemporary political message.

Duberman’s work for its part brings to life two lesser-known historical figures whose struggles do seem quite relevant in the current political moment. In telling the story, Duberman moves chronologically, recreating both his primary and many secondary characters via both imagined and real conversations, and interspersing their stories with actual newspaper and court records. To build Albert and Lucy’s relationship, Duberman invents journal entries from Albert as well as letters between the two Parsons. Throughout the novel, Duberman also quite capably escalates the tension: it is one of those rare works in which even if you know the outcome, you still keep turning the pages.

Duberman, the historian, naturally pays careful attention to period detail, while the prose of Duberman, the novelist, often sparkles. Take, for example, his description of Albert and Lucy’s observations upon their arrival from Texas to Chicago, just after the fire of 1873:

The downtown area produced a ceaseless, capricious din, emanations of the perilous disorder everywhere in sight—the unruly, shouting crush of workmen; the aggressive army of food vendors hawking oysters, baked pears or spiced gingerbread; the icemen hauling hundred-pound blocks between the jaws of their tongs; the scissor grinders ringing handbells; the scurrying hollers of competing hordes of ragpickers.

In the second half of the book, which consists mostly of the journal entries and letters, the writing is less descriptive, but no less precise. At the same time, Duberman, clearly familiar with the tricks of prison literature, convincingly brings the reader to death row.

Whether the main characters in Haymarket are fully realized is an open question, however. Crucial moments—such as Lucy’s embrace of violence, or Albert’s reckoning with martyrdom—tend to pass too quickly, without sufficient pause for the characters to reflect on their own decisions. Meanwhile, those readers with a bias against political fiction in general will surely find fault in some of the dialogue. Everything Lucy says is plausible, but at times she can be rather programmatic. When Samuel Fielden suggests that his desire to become a stone-hauler rather than stone-lifter means he’s an aspiring capitalist, Lucy responds, "That simply makes you a hard-working man, which disqualifies you from membership in the capitalist class." Such stiff exchanges recall Jack London’s Iron Heel. When Lucy and other characters speak more colloquially—which they do, often—they become more compelling.

In my mind, these are far from damning criticisms. Those reading this book will come to it expecting contentious debate, making it better to err on the side of too much political discussion rather than too little. And, in any event, the issues raised by Haymarket are well worth discussing. The first Gilded Era was characterized by unregulated capitalism backed by a corrupt political system and a state openly hostile to dissent. With similar forces at work here in the second Gilded Era, Haymarket transports us back into a world that we can only wish would remain the stuff of historical fiction.

Fiction
All in the Details
by Anne McPeak

Gottfried Keller, Green Henry
(Tusk Ivories/The Overlook Press, 2003)

While Gottfried Keller’s classic Green Henry is rambling and shapeless and centers on a somewhat exasperating, self-pitying boy who grows up to be an exasperating, self-pitying failed artist—it is a fantastic read.

Henry Lee (called Green Henry because of the color of the coat he makes his trademark) is the victim of a twofold theft while still in his childhood in mid-century Switzerland. First, his father, a man who inspires reverence in all who know him, dies suddenly when Henry is five. The memory of his father becomes almost god-like: "A man always sets a double value on what Fate has deprived him of, and so my mother’s long tales used to fill me more and more with longing for the father who died before I knew him."

Second, Henry loses his chance at an education. In a somewhat far-fetched sequence of events (though the book is highly autobiographical), Henry becomes the leader of a preteen rebellion against the local, very young and very inexperienced schoolteacher. At the beginning of the school year, a rumor spreads among the children that the new schoolteacher is going to rule them, "the children of the aristocrats, with a rod of iron." The rumor in fact originated from a disgruntled father and contains no truth, but now the puppy-dog schoolteacher is faced with "organized opposition and a mild campaign of mischief" and responds with the highest degree of strictness, with disastrous results. He is eventually dismissed as an incompetent teacher, and one day as he lies ailing in his bed the children march over to his house to terrorize him one last time. Henry doesn’t want to be involved at first but is apparently unable to resist the temptation; he ends up at the head of the procession, shouting orders as if this were a revolution, and once everyone has piled into the schoolteacher’s house, Henry stands outside to prevent any of them from leaving. As a result, Henry is put through a sort of tribunal and thrown out of school; these are the pre-mandatory-education days, so he is literally left to his own devices.

These two tragedies are intertwined. If his father had been alive, he would have found some way to continue Henry’s education; without a proper education, Henry will never grow up to fill his father’s shoes. And there is no in-between for Henry: since he is no longer a boy, he must now be a man. He is sent to his uncle’s house in the country for a few months so that his mother can find a useful future for him. But Henry has his own plans: he is going to elaborate on his current hobby and become an artist. He writes his mother a letter solemnly telling her so, and she in response solemnly puts on her best clothes and goes around visiting various male acquaintances to collect their opinions on this matter. The responses are mixed, but in the end she concedes to Henry’s wishes, and his apprenticeship in painting begins.

Henry’s paintings are mostly representational landscapes and are generally well-received. The trouble is, he reaches his ceiling while still young, then spends his 20s in Germany deteriorating into hopeless debt. An attempt at exhibiting a painting ends catastrophically when he sees that his work has been plagiarized by an older, more established painter whose painting is hung in the same exhibition, making it seem that Henry is the foolish plagiarizer. In the end, Henry likens his failure as an artist to his lost education: when he considers returning to his village and his mother penniless, he shakes his head, "for I could not make up my mind to publish my shipwreck and run away from school like that."

When things seem to have gone irrevocably bad, Henry is met with a twist of fate that would have made Dickens smile. Starving, penniless, and nearly out of his mind, Henry finally endeavors to return to his childhood village on foot from Germany. One rainy night at the beginning of the trip, he stops in a church hoping to spend the night there, only to be turned away by the sexton. So he goes into the adjoining graveyard, and is about to be turned away again, when a beautiful maiden appears and declares that he will spend the night in her father’s house, on whose property the church and graveyard lie. Moments later, sitting inside by a fire, Henry and the maiden, Dorothea, realize simultaneously who the other is: she has bought a collection of his drawings at a second-hand store where he sold them out of starving desperation. Suddenly things look very different for Henry. Dorothea’s father greatly admires him as an artist and insists on paying him large sums of money for the drawings, which he believes were bought for an unfair price. And Dorothea is, of course, beautiful and eligible.

We’re headed for a fairy tale ending here, but alas, that is not Henry’s fate, because in his typical fashion he is unable to express himself to Dorothea, so continues on his journey alone, only to find out months later from Dorothea’s father that she was in love with him but did not feel that she could waste her youth waiting for him and has married. Now Henry is settled back in his childhood village, his poor mother having died literally moments after he arrived. Luckily for him, his distant cousin Judith has also returned to the area (after an unsuccessful foray into America), and the two of them, who shared a secret love affair when younger, still find each other attractive. But in a baffling outcome, Judith insists that Henry keep his freedom, so they spend the rest of their lives living apart and coming together whenever they get lonely.

The beauty of this novel is in the details. Everything that Henry sees, feels, and thinks about is catalogued with vivid precision. This was Keller’s strength: instead of feeling overwritten, the book is beautiful, and you almost long for another painstaking description of how the lake that borders his uncle’s house mirrors the mountains, or another rambling discourse on what Henry thinks about God. The book also serves as a social history of Keller’s Switzerland and Germany, with brilliant images of daily life—a woman laying a loaf of bread on each step of her staircase to cool on baking day; elaborate (and without footnotes, rather mysterious) descriptions of national festivals; and the occasional digression into folklore (my favorite is about a little "witch-girl" who refuses to go to church or read the bible, dies very young, then rises from her casket at her funeral and scampers off into the fields, causing the villagers to run home and bar their doors).

In the end, there is no real sympathy for Henry. His ultimate failure is that he never really understands himself. For all his talent of observance and his endless philosophical ruminations, Henry is rarely able to see himself for who he really is and what he really wants. He becomes a civil servant—something that was tremendously important to Keller in his own life, but just seems to depress Henry more about human nature. Henry has kept a record of his youthful days, which he had given to Judith. On her death, the book comes back to him, and he updates it "in order once again to walk the old green path of remembrance;" his artistic aspirations are now relegated to a childhood adventure, a nostalgic oddity; Henry’s final failure to understand himself.

Poetry
A Brooklyn Wordsmith
by Megan Marz

Tracy K. Smith, The Body’s Question
(Graywolf Press, 2003)

The Body’s Question, Brooklyn resident Tracy K. Smith’s first poetry collection, doesn’t give many answers. Instead, it draws us into a world where we’re required to question everything. This is a world where many things you assumed don’t, anymore, seem safe to assume. Here, you can taste words and touch smells. Here, your body can sing. Here, waking is death; living is dreaming.

The book’s opening poem, "Something Like Dying, Maybe," likens dying with waking up from a dream: When the speaker wakes, "All those buildings, those marvelous bodies / Pulled away as though they’d never known me." With this comparison, the poem suggests that waking is inextricably connected with dying—that in leaving one world, we enter another. "Something Like Dying" thus makes a fitting beginning to the book. It’s fair warning that we will have to leave behind our own world, if only for an hour or two, for a newer one: a more fluid world where things like mind and body and language and sex are less fixed in their customary places.

Smith divides this world, her book, into four sections, each of which would be clearly delineated even without the bold-faced Roman numeral on the recto of each section’s first page. The first uses images drawn from Mexican culture as avenues into questioning conventional perception, particularly of the relationship between body and mind. In "Serenade," the speaker dances with a man, Luis:

Delirious with Spanish and moonlight,
With the scrawl of streets that led us here
To night in a foreign language.
We are dancing the merengue
And my body rings
With the ringing that wants to be answered.
As though I am a little drunk in the bones.
As though all along, my body has been waiting …

Here, in the last lines, the body alone is imbued with characteristics of the whole self: the bones are drunk, the body waits. And so, the line between body and self becomes blurrier. Could the body be the self? The speaker’s body "serenades" Luis’s body, with the merengue as its song. Thus dance becomes song; movement becomes language more profound than what we generally think of as body language. Smith’s second section sheds, for the most part, elements particular to a specific culture, focusing on barer humanity. In "A Hunger So Honed," one of the central poems, Smith’s speaker describes a deer as "all phantom and shadow," making the body into a thing less solid than we might think a body should be.

In "Joy," a section comprised of four untitled poems, Smith contends with death. Or, more specifically, the death of the body as we, in this world, know it. She begins stanzas in the first poem, "The body is appetite," and "The body is memory." These declarations about what the body "is" are more pointed than those earlier in the book. With them, it seems, comes an effort to pin down exactly what, in death, dies: Memory? Appetite? The poem, from which the book ostensibly draws its title, concludes: "That the body’s a question: / What do you believe in?" Thus the body becomes the ultimate ambiguity. "What do you believe in?" suggests that the body is, more than anything, a person’s perception of or belief in it. This conclusion most explicitly links body and mind as inextricably intertwined. There is, perhaps, no boundary—no place at which one ends and the other begins.

Smith accomplishes this annihilation of boundaries with surprisingly plain-spoken language and without much fanfare. Quietly and sinuously, she enters a dreamy world through the beauty of a culture, then strips away some of its elements to look at things in another light. Then, just as she’s left readers awash in a sea of questions that make us unsure of even just what our bodies are, or what they can do, she moves on to an examination of their death.

Though the fourth, final section is perhaps the least cohesive, its last poem gives a subtle conclusion to The Body’s Question (What do you believe in?). In "Prayer," Smith refers, as she does in a previous poem, to the letter "Y," perhaps playing on the sound of "Why," a word that is always a question. She prays "for the words / That would not exist without it: / For Yesterday. For not Yet. / For Youth … / For Yearning ... / For the words I repeat in the dark / And the Lord that is always listening."

And so the Why’s are prayed for. For it is they that allow us to constantly revise our ideas of the world and the bodies that inhabit it.

Megan Marz is a writer based in Brooklyn.

Art
The Art Carny
by Rich Klin

Jerry Saltz, Seeing Out Loud
(The Figures, 2003)

Seeing Out Loud is an ambitious greatest hits compendium that encompasses five solid years of Jerry Saltz’s chronicles for the Village Voice. A critic—and especially an art critic—walks a fine line. The "critic’s first flushes of discovery," to borrow a phrase from the late Pauline Kael, must possess a literate power of observation that can’t quickly lapse into highfalutin prose or incomprehensible rubric. It should include dollops of colloquial "slangy freedom"— another Kaelism—but not too much slang or dumbed-down prose. An admirable critical eclecticism should never devolve into scattershot, tangential entries.

Artist-turned long-distance truck driver-turned critic Saltz has covered an astonishingly wide breadth of topics and motifs, which now have flawlessly gelled into a readable, astute tome. Referencing a diverse cast of characters ranging from John Cage to Robert Heinlein to Phil Spector to The Grapes of Wrath, Saltz travels in and around the eye of the art storm, his perceptive writings touching on the Jewish Museum’s controversial "Mirroring Evil" exhibition of Nazi imagery, and the recent storm of storms, the Brooklyn Museum’s "Sensations," which brought down the wrath of Rudy Giuliani and God himself—evidently, in that exact order. Reading Saltz’s precision piece on Jacob Lawrence also offers a concise instructional on the historical southern black migration to points north. The column on Gerhard Richter encompasses references to Baader-Meinhof; an attack on Guggenheim director Thomas Krens subtly morphs into a trenchant broadside against corporate globalization.

Critics are allowed to—and should—wax rhapsodic. Rirkrit Tiravanija’s installation is arresting and "mysteriously beautiful." There’s a wonderful, affecting appreciation of a basket of wild strawberries, courtesy of Chardin. The unfairly pummeled Chris Ofili is eloquently defended against the torrent of invective: "Old white government guys love telling black artists what’s offensive." September 11 and its aftermath are covered with sensitivity and insight. "That globalist hum people thought they were listening to," Saltz writes, "turns out to have been background noise to a cacophony of conflicting contexts."

Saltz is not without an entertainingly acid pen. The Drawing Center takes a drubbing for its resemblance to "some dank Communist-bloc museum." James Ensor’s "massacres and hellish scenes are a Mardi Gras of confusion as if by a wildly precocious 14-year-old boy." Paul McCarthy is likened to a "demented geezer." But Seeing Out Loud is not simply a series of spleen-venting diatribes. Being funny is not the kiss of death for a critic—quite the opposite, as the reader is also informed that Alice Neel appeared (twice, no less) on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show. Saltz perceptively recognizes that "it can take years to understand what an all-white painting … might be about." And most dramatically, for a leading art critic, he peppers his book with two (count ‘em) references to Beavis and Butthead.

Seeing Out Loud, with its myriad of discrete entries, takes on a rat-a-tat tempo, which is the nature of the beast in a book of this sort. One would like Saltz to linger and settle in—not a quibble, but an accolade. His polymorphous canvas ranges from the art world’s re-doubtables and usual suspects to explorations of William Blake, renaissance tapestry, Norman Rockwell, the history of scientific and medical illustration, and an amazing piece on Pierre Huyghe’s video, featuring real-life Dog Day Afternoon bank robber John Wojtowicz.

Seeing Out Loud’s time span encompasses November 1998 to February 2003, in what has been a dizzy era of tumult and change—for the art world, for New York City, and globally. We await, with interest and trepidation, Seeing Out Loud II.

Rich Klin is a former Brooklyn resident who now lives in the Hudson Valley, where it’s very cold.

Contributors

Theodore Hamm

Megan Marz

MEGAN MARZ is a writer based in Brooklyn.

Richard Klin

Rich Klin is a former Brooklyn resident who now lives in the Hudson Valley, where it's very cold.

Anne McPeak

ANNE MCPEAK is the managing editor of the Brooklyn-based magazine A Public Space.

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