‘Coming of Age in Mississippi’ still speaks to nation’s racial discord, 50 years later


Leigh Ann Wheeler, Binghamton University, State University of New York

Most memoirs are soon forgotten.

A rare exception is Anne Moody’s “Coming of Age in Mississippi,” which was published in 1968. It spoke to the day’s pressing issues – poverty, race and civil rights – with an urgent timeliness.

Fifty years later, the book still commands a wide readership. Read each year by thousands of high school and college students, it remains a Random House backlist best-seller – a title that continues to sell with little to no marketing.

As I research Anne Moody’s life for my upcoming biography, I often wonder what her memoir’s continued popularity means. Does it signal dramatic progress on race relations in the U.S. – or does it instead show us that, as former Sen. Ted Kennedy wrote in 1969, “If things are somewhat different, then they are not different enough.”

Till’s death opens Moody’s eyes

Written when Moody was 28 years old, “Coming of Age” is a gripping story. In spare, direct prose, she takes readers into the world of African-American sharecroppers in the Jim Crow South. As a child, she chopped and picked cotton, cleaned houses for white people, and wondered why whites had better everything – better bathrooms, better schools and better seats in the movie theater.

That mystery remained unsolved when, in 1955, Moody learned that white men had killed a black boy her age just a few hours’ drive north. The killing felt personal.

“Before Emmett Till’s murder, I had known the fear of hunger, hell, and the Devil,” she wrote. “But now there was … the fear of being killed just because I was black.”

Closer to home, whites ran her cousin out of town, brutally beat a classmate, and burned an entire family alive in their home. Amid such horrors, Moody feared a nervous breakdown.

But she resolved to resist.

In 1963, Moody became infamous in Mississippi after she challenged racial segregation in what would be the era’s most violent lunch-counter sit-in. At the Woolworth’s in Jackson, Mississippi, white men shoved Moody off her stool, dragged her across the floor by her hair and, when she crawled back, smeared her with ketchup, sugar and mustard.

Photographer Fred Blackwell captured a now-iconic image of this day, with Moody seated in the middle.

Anne Moody endures harassment from a crowd of whites at a Woolworth’s in Jackson, Miss.
Fred Blackwell/Jackson Daily News, via Associated Press

In the early 1960s, Moody worked tirelessly as an organizer for the Congress of Racial Equality in Canton, Mississippi. But after facing daily death threats, she fled to the North, where she moved from city to city, raising money for the movement.

At each stop, she described what it was like to come of age, as a black woman, in Mississippi. At one, she shared a stage with baseball great Jackie Robinson, who urged her to write down her story.

So she did.

Readers react

After “Coming of Age in Mississippi” was published, the response was split.

Some readers viewed the book as – in the words of one reviewer for The New Republic – a “measure of how far we have come.” To them, the worst of racism was over, and Moody’s account served as a stark reminder of how bad things once were.

Many readers praised Moody’s story. Many in her home state, however, spurned it.
Dell

Others, however, read Moody’s experiences of racism as simply one chapter in a current and ongoing struggle – “the sickening story of the way it still is for thousands who are black in the American South,” as Robert Colby Nelson wrote for The Christian Science Monitor.

Massachusetts Sen. Ted Kennedy read it both ways.

He called the memoir “a history of our time, seen from the bottom up, through the eyes of someone who decided for herself that things had to be changed.” Still, he regretted that the book did not mention recent advances, like the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which enabled the election of several black public officials in Moody’s own hometown.

Meanwhile, for decades, Southern media outlets and public institutions shunned “Coming of Age in Mississippi” and Anne Moody herself. Hostile whites in Moody’s hometown of Centreville, Mississippi even threatened to kill her if she ever returned.

How much has really changed?

By contrast, today, “Coming of Age” shows up on high school and college reading lists throughout the South, and Anne Moody appears among 21 authors pictured on the Mississippi Literary Map. Her crumbling childhood home sits on the recently renamed Anne Moody Street, and Anne Moody Memorial Highway now connects Centreville and Woodville, the town where she graduated from high school.

In Moody’s day, local public officials were all white. Now they more closely reflect the county’s 75 percent black population.

In 1963, Moody mourned the assassination of her beloved colleague, Medgar Evers, president of the state National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and watched in horror as local whites refused to convict his murderer. Thirty years later, Byron De La Beckwith was finally convicted of homocide and imprisoned for life. Today, visitors who fly into the Mississippi state capital, land at Jackson-Evers International Airport.

These shifts make “Coming of Age” seem, to many readers, an inspiring account of survival, resistance and victory.

But to others, the book is anything but a triumphalist story. Instead, its lessons are grim: In retrospect, civil rights victories seem superficial, while the brutal poverty and racism Moody described endures.

Compared to whites, black people in the U.S. are more than twice as likely to die in infancy, three times more likely to be poor, three times more likely to be killed by police, five times more likely to be imprisoned and seven times more likely to be murdered. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was gutted by a 2013 Supreme Court decision that emboldened states around the country to create new restrictions that prevent black citizens from voting.

Anne Moody was one of the lucky ones. She graduated from college, moved north and published a best-selling memoir.

But despite the accolades, television appearances, radio interviews and speaking engagements, she could never really escape Jim Crow Mississippi. It had deprived her of her family and a place to truly call home.

“Coming of Age” ends with Moody listening to civil rights workers sing the anthem, “We Shall Overcome.”

“I wonder,” she wrote. “I really wonder.”

Fifty years later, many of us are still wondering.The Conversation

Leigh Ann Wheeler, Professor of History, Binghamton University, State University of New York

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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A fresh perspective on Tasmania, a terrible and beautiful place



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This pin cushion made from the jawbone of a thylacine won second prize in the handicraft section of the Glamorgan Show in 1900.
Courtesy Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery

Cassandra Pybus, University of Tasmania

Book Review: Island Story: Tasmania in Object and Text.

The island of Tasmania lies suspended beneath Australia like a heart-shaped pendant of sapphire, emerald and tourmaline. Here is where the world runs out, crumbling into the vast expanse of the Southern Ocean.

Island Story: Tasmania in Object and Text offers us a fresh perspective on this terrible and beautiful place. Editors Ralph Crane and Danielle Wood invite the reader to discover Tasmania anew with their inspired juxtaposition of objects from the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery with texts as diverse as the objects. The pictures are arresting, the textual extracts are perfectly chosen and the design by Imogen Stubbs is gorgeous. Don’t be misled, this is no bland coffee table book.

As benefits such an ancient place, Island Story opens with the specimen of a hairy-legged cicada, an endemic species so ancient it was resident in the supercontinent of Pangea.




Read more:
Friday essay: journey through the apocalypse


What follows is Thomas Bock’s 1837 portrait of Woureddy, cleverman and warrior of the original people of Tasmania, whose unbroken occupation of the island lasted 40,000 years until colonial invasion brought it to a dreadful end within the short span of Woureddy’s life.

Thomas Bock, Woureddy, Native of Bruny Island, Van Diemen’s Land.
Watercolour, 1837

Courtesy Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery

Paired with the portrait is the befuddled interpretation of Woureddy’s narrative of the beginning of the world by George Augustus Robinson, the self-proclaimed evangelical missionary primarily responsible for the removal of all the original owners of the land to distant Flinders Island in the Bass Strait.

Robinson’s grand achievement in “conciliating” the original people of Tasmania was celebrated in an 1840 painting by Benjamin Duterrau, reproduced with a paired text by Greg Lehmann that puts in words an implicit theme of Island Story that “the spectre of genocide must be confronted and its consequences owned”.

Connections

The organising principle for the book is “the human desire to see, make and enjoy connections between seemingly disparate things”. A travelling case from the 1920s belonging to the silent move actress Louise Lovely, paired with an extract from Marie Bjelke Petersen’s novel Jewelled Nights that became a movie in 1925 starring Ms Lovely, seems unexceptional, but turn the page and there is a news photograph of arrests at the gay law reform protests in 1988.

The apparent disparity is resolved with the paired biographic extract by the gay rights activist Rodney Croome recalling his bizarre quest to shake the hand of the abhorrent Sir Joh Bjelke Peterson, favourite nephew of Marie, because his was the last hand to touch this writer Croome so admired.




Read more:
Churning the mud: Tasmania’s fertile ground for legal and social reform


In my desire to see and make connections I found the dominant trope of this book to be captivity: entirely apposite for a place that began its modern history as prison. Among the more mundane objects is a saw from the infamous prison at Macquarie Harbour paired with historian Hamish Maxwell Stewart’s account of the extreme misery that drove so many fatal escape attempts.

John Douglas’s saw, c. 1830s.
Courtesy Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery

Most chilling is the simple cambric and cotton hood with narrow eye slit for prisoners in the dreadful separate prison at Port Arthur. They had to pull it over their heads whenever they left their cell.

Convict Cowl, c. 1850.
Courtesy Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery

In the paired extract from a travelogue by Anthony Trollope, a man who endured 40 years of frightful punishment at Port Arthur after being transported for mutiny, a boy tells Trollope: “I have tried to escape – always to escape – as a bird does out of a cage”.

A delicate watercolour of three young Hobart ladies by the gentleman painter and convicted forger Thomas Wainwright is paired with his 1844 petition begging he be released from “vice in her most revolting and sordid phase” that constituted his seven years in captivity.

Thomas Bock, Mathinna, Watercolour, 1842.
Courtesy Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery

The painter Thomas Bock also spent years as a convict. In addition to his portrait of Woureddy, the book reproduces his exquisite 1842 portrait of Mathinna, the young girl taken from captivity at Wybalenna on Flinders Island and sent to live at government house as a sort of household pet.

A recent photograph of the chapel at Wybalenna is paired with the 1846 petition to Queen Victoria from several young men protesting their unjust treatment at Wybalenna.

One year after the petition, four dozen survivors were transferred to another place of captivity at a disused convict station at Oyster Cove south of Hobart. All of those taken to Oyster Cove died, except for Fanny who had married an ex-convict named William Smith and went to live on land she was granted in the Huon Valley. She is represented here in the wax cylinders that captured her singing in her own language in 1899.

As one might expect, the extinct Tasmanian Tiger has several outings in this book: as a skeleton, a skin carriage rug and an exquisite jawbone pincushion that won second prize in the handicraft section of the Glamorgan Show in 1900. There is no still from the famous film of the last thylacine in his iron cage, but there is a poignant poem by Cliff Forshaw about the creature’s desolate pacing.

Thylacine Skin Buggy Rug, c. 1903, photographed by Robert David Stephenson.
Courtesy Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery



Read more:
Friday essay: on the trail of the London thylacines


There are numerous other images from the Zoology section: a specimen drawer of impaled butterflies, stuffed wattlebirds imprisoned in a glass cabinet and a wombat taken from the wild around 1796 and kept in a cage at Government house in Sydney then preserved in spirits and sent to England where the taxidermist mistakenly set the animal standing upright.

Then there is John Burns, the fighting lion born in captivity in the Sydney Zoo and for many years displayed in a huge cage in a circus to be tamed by Captain Humphries and his whip.

Known for his morose moods and fits of rage, John Burns would thrill the audience with his fierce fight for supremacy over Humphries. His body was sent to the taxidermist and displayed in the museum diorama as a tableau with a lioness and two cubs in 1901.

The fighting lion was long gone by my childhood. What I remember of the diorama, which remained until quite recently, was a tableau of an Aboriginal warrior with his wife and two children sitting around a fire. This tableau was made of resin, you understand.The Conversation

Cassandra Pybus, Adjunct Professor in History, University of Tasmania

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Frankenstein: the real experiments that inspired the fictional science



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Giovanni Aldini’s experiments with a human corpse.
Wellcome Collection, CC BY-SA

Iwan Morus, Aberystwyth University

On January 17 1803, a young man named George Forster was hanged for murder at Newgate prison in London. After his execution, as often happened, his body was carried ceremoniously across the city to the Royal College of Surgeons, where it would be publicly dissected. What actually happened was rather more shocking than simple dissection though. Forster was going to be electrified.

The experiments were to be carried out by the Italian natural philosopher Giovanni Aldini, the nephew of Luigi Galvani, who discovered “animal electricity” in 1780, and for whom the field of galvanism is named. With Forster on the slab before him, Aldini and his assistants started to experiment. The Times newspaper reported:

On the first application of the process to the face, the jaw of the deceased criminal began to quiver, the adjoining muscles were horribly contorted, and one eye was actually opened. In the subsequent part of the process, the right hand was raised and clenched, and the legs and thighs were set in motion.

It looked to some spectators “as if the wretched man was on the eve of being restored to life.”

By the time Aldini was experimenting on Forster the idea that there was some peculiarly intimate relationship between electricity and the processes of life was at least a century old. Isaac Newton speculated along such lines in the early 1700s. In 1730, the English astronomer and dyer Stephen Gray demonstrated the principle of electrical conductivity. Gray suspended an orphan boy on silk cords in mid air, and placed a positively charged tube near the boy’s feet, creating a negative charge in them. Due to his electrical isolation, this created a positive charge in the child’s other extremities, causing a nearby dish of gold leaf to be attracted to his fingers.

In France in 1746 Jean Antoine Nollet entertained the court at Versailles by causing a company of 180 royal guardsmen to jump simultaneously when the charge from a Leyden jar (an electrical storage device) passed through their bodies.

It was to defend his uncle’s theories against the attacks of opponents such as Alessandro Volta that Aldini carried out his experiments on Forster. Volta claimed that “animal” electricity was produced by the contact of metals rather than being a property of living tissue, but there were several other natural philosophers who took up Galvani’s ideas with enthusiasm. Alexander von Humboldt experimented with batteries made entirely from animal tissue. Johannes Ritter even carried out electrical experiments on himself to explore how electricity affected the sensations.

Actor Boris Karloff as Frankenstein’s monster, 1935.
Wikimedia

The idea that electricity really was the stuff of life and that it might be used to bring back the dead was certainly a familiar one in the kinds of circles in which the young Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley – the author of Frankenstein – moved. The English poet, and family friend, Samuel Taylor Coleridge was fascinated by the connections between electricity and life. Writing to his friend the chemist Humphry Davy after hearing that he was giving lectures at the Royal Institution in London, he told him how his “motive muscles tingled and contracted at the news, as if you had bared them and were zincifying the life-mocking fibres”. Percy Bysshe Shelley himself – who would become Wollstonecraft’s husband in 1816 – was another enthusiast for galvanic experimentation.

Vital knowledge

Aldini’s experiments with the dead attracted considerable attention. Some commentators poked fun at the idea that electricity could restore life, laughing at the thought that Aldini could “make dead people cut droll capers”. Others took the idea very seriously. Lecturer Charles Wilkinson, who assisted Aldini in his experiments, argued that galvanism was “an energising principle, which forms the line of distinction between matter and spirit, constituting in the great chain of the creation, the intervening link between corporeal substance and the essence of vitality”.

In 1814 the English surgeon John Abernethy made much the same sort of claim in the annual Hunterian lecture at the Royal College of Surgeons. His lecture sparked a violent debate with fellow surgeon William Lawrence. Abernethy claimed that electricity was (or was like) the vital force while Lawrence denied that there was any need to invoke a vital force at all to explain the processes of life. Both Mary and Percy Shelley certainly knew about this debate – Lawrence was their doctor.

By the time Frankenstein was published in 1818, its readers would have been familiar with the notion that life could be created or restored with electricity. Just a few months after the book appeared, the Scottish chemist Andrew Ure carried out his own electrical experiments on the body of Matthew Clydesdale, who had been executed for murder. When the dead man was electrified, Ure wrote, “every muscle in his countenance was simultaneously thrown into fearful action; rage, horror, despair, anguish, and ghastly smiles, united their hideous expression in the murderer’s face”.

Ure reported that the experiments were so gruesome that “several of the spectators were forced to leave the apartment, and one gentleman fainted”. It is tempting to speculate about the degree to which Ure had Mary Shelley’s recent novel in mind as he carried out his experiments. His own account of them was certainly quite deliberately written to highlight their more lurid elements.

Frankenstein might look like fantasy to modern eyes, but to its author and original readers there was nothing fantastic about it. Just as everyone knows about artificial intelligence now, so Shelley’s readers knew about the possibilities of electrical life. And just as artificial intelligence (AI) invokes a range of responses and arguments now, so did the prospect of electrical life – and Shelley’s novel – then.

The science behind Frankenstein reminds us that current debates have a long history – and that in many ways the terms of our debates now are determined by it. It was during the 19th century that people started thinking about the future as a different country, made out of science and technology. Novels such as Frankenstein, in which authors made their future out of the ingredients of their present, were an important element in that new way of thinking about tomorrow.

Thinking about the science that made Frankenstein seem so real in 1818 might help us consider more carefully the ways we think now about the possibilities – and the dangers – of our present futures.The Conversation

Iwan Morus, Professor of History, Aberystwyth University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Man Booker Prize 2018: when writers speak we glimpse the human behind the story



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booker authors.

Martin Goodman, University of Hull

Novelists are used to staring out of windows, not out at audiences. We write in solitude, and expect our readers to read in solitude. And then, for a few, the phone rings. A publicist has struck lucky with your book. It’s been shortlisted for a literary award. You can no longer be private. You have to perform live.

This year a leading independent publisher told me how he takes on a maximum of two new fiction writers a year. He knows that literary festivals and ever slimmer book review pages won’t want to hear about them. His sole hope for these books is that they win a literary prize. The big one, of course, is the Man Booker Prize.

Just one independent publisher made it to this year’s shortlist: Faber & Faber with Anna Burns’ Milkman. Faber has a kitty it can raid for the £5,000 charged to shortlisted publishers for promotional costs. And there has been plenty of promotion. As Burns admitted recently: “I can’t say anything more about my book … I’m talked out. My brain has pulled over the curtains.”

The Man Booker is something of a winner-takes-all contest. Check the current Top 20 bestsellers for original fiction and not a single shortlisted title reaches the chart. But the winner pretty much always leaps to the top. So how are the current shortlisted writers coping with this brief spell in the limelight?

First impressions

Two days before the winner was due to be announced the writers encountered each other for the first time for a Sunday night appearance at London’s Royal Festival Hall. The audience paid up to £35 a ticket to hear these writers read and talk. Take this Man Booker reading as its own performance contest, and which writer would win?

I settled in my seat with mixed expectations. In Britain, you can coax the occasional creative writing student into a soft-voiced reading, but most hate the prospect. On the other hand, writing classes in the US have spoken delivery and response at their core. In 2014, the Man Booker opened entry to US writers, so I expected the two shortlisted American writers, Rachel Kushner and Richard Powers, to leap out of the blocks.

Kushner obliged. “I recently started to wear these glasses”, she tells us, “because they’ve started to shrink all the texts in all the books.” For her excerpt from The Mars Room she pops in and out of dialogue for a tale of hotwiring a cement mixer, and laughter trills around the auditorium. Yes, she did do her own audio book, she tells the host. “I read out loud while I’m writing so I felt I’d been practising to do that.” Her big interest is in voices, their “formal syncopation – the first person is traditionally a confessional tone, a challenging voice”.

Robin Robertson’s voice is more than challenging. The Long Take is a noir novel in verse, in which a World War II veteran finds himself among the denizens of Skid Row in 1940s Los Angeles. Robertson grips hold of the perspex lectern and delivers his reading with measured threat in every line. In conversation, he tells the London audience how the book reflects the “sense of urban paranoia and panic” that gripped him on first reaching London, and the “deep sense of existential dread” felt by German filmmakers in their post-war Hollywood exile.

For Burns, her characters are nameless and appear as voices in her head. She reads in the shock of a character’s short sentences. We find ourselves shocked. We find ourselves laughing. Anna reads on. It’s tough stuff.

Esi Edugyan smiles, thanks us, tells us she’s pleased to be with us. We warm to her and recognise her nerves – but something gets stuck. The voice of the protagonist in Washington Black is of a young 19th-century boy, a slave – and his first-person past tense narrative is literary. It belongs not so much in the author’s voice, but on paper.

Richard Powers read from his novel, The Overstory, as though in awe of it, his voice close to breaking. At 502 pages, The Overstory is the longest book on the shortlist, and the five-minute reading somehow gave a sense of its length. As fellow shortlister, Daisy Johnson, noted: “There’s something treelike in the way it’s written” – and it’s true: his reading accrued detail like growth rings.

Performing arts

And so to the two “Writer in Performance” awards I took it upon myself to present for the evening. Every writer gets a special award for taking the stage yet staying true to themselves – but, for the most constant laughter and spontaneous applause, the Audience Award goes to Rachel Kushner.

I had other award categories, which Daisy Johnson nailed in reading from her Everything Under – including eye contact with audience and an urgent clarity in her reading. But ironically what clinched the Judge’s Performance Award for Daisy Johnson is the writing. She spoke as an “I” talking to a “you”. She stripped away the literary and delivered the directness of raw speech.

We all applauded, the writers walked off to sign books – and soon one Man Booker winner will be hurtled into months of celebrity. The others, surely, will step from the public gaze and return to the journey Kushner spoke of, going “deeper in myself and trying to form a rich dialogue with my own consciousness”.The Conversation

Martin Goodman, Professor of Creative Writing, University of Hull

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

How the stigma of contagion keeps alive Romantic notions of how the Brontës died



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The three Brontë sisters with their brother Branwell.
Woodend, Scarborough

Jo Waugh, York St John University

Bizarrely, the idea that Branwell Brontë had sex with his sister Emily appears to have been more palatable than the idea that he might have given her tuberculosis – or that the infection might have passed to Anne from either sibling. Those documenting the lives of the Brontës since the late 19th century have been curiously reluctant to acknowledge this fact.

Branwell, Emily, and Anne all died from various forms of tuberculosis between September 1848 and May 1849. All three had lived together at Haworth Parsonage in Yorkshire with their sister Charlotte (who managed to last until 1855 when she too succumbed to tuberculosis). Branwell and Emily died there, and Anne died on a final trip to Scarborough, where she is buried.

Branwell Brontë.
Wikipedia, CC BY

We know today that tuberculosis is contagious, and particularly so between family members living in close quarters. Yet the idea that one Brontë sibling might have infected or been infected by another still seems to be taboo in Brontë biography and adaptation.

Only Claire Harman’s biography of Charlotte Brontë (2015) and Beth Torgerson’s Reading The Brontë Body (2005) have suggested the possibility of infection, even briefly. So how and why has contagion largely been written out of the story of Branwell’s, Emily’s and Anne’s deaths?

The contagion taboo

The way we think about tuberculosis has changed dramatically since Robert Koch discovered the tubercle bacillus in 1882. As Katherine Byrne has explained in Tuberculosis and the Victorian Literary Imagination, before Koch’s discovery “consumption” had often been thought of as a “mysterious, ethereal wasting disease”. It became “an identifiable bacterial infection” by the end of the 19th century, and this was also when the term “tuberculosis” started to replace “consumption”.

By the mid-20th century, the tuberculosis sufferer was no longer thought of as delicate or exceptional. Now that the infection could be clearly seen in X-rays, and treated with often brutal surgery, the tubercular body seemed much less Romantic. TB was a public health problem, and those who contracted it often faced isolation and social stigma.

Yet in this same period, biographies about the Brontës described their deaths from rather personal, individual illness, as though the discoveries made about the disease in the intervening century had never happened. The “consumption” from which the siblings died in these accounts often seems to have little in common with the disease which was by then commonly known as tuberculosis.

Anne, Emily and Charlotte Brontë, who all died of tuberculosis.
National Portrait Gallery

In 1947 alone, Ernest Raymond, Laura L Hinkley and Phyllis Bentley all told a story which stressed Branwell’s alcoholism, Emily’s grief, and Anne meekly following her two siblings to the grave. These biographers, and many more in the late 1940s and the 1950s, stressed both weather and emotion as causes of death. They created an aura of predestined tragedy around the Brontës which proved difficult to displace in the years which followed.

Films and TV dramas showed the same causes for the Brontës’ deaths. Granada TV’s The Brontës of Haworth (1973) has Branwell’s burial immediately followed by Emily clasping the table as a whistling wind comes in through the parsonage door. She coughs, sickens and dies, and Anne quietly follows.

Andre Téchiné’s Les Sœurs Brontë (1979) portrays an unusually close relationship between Branwell and Emily throughout. So when Branwell dies, Emily is emotionally, not bacterially, infected. She puts on his coat and sobs until her sobs become coughs. She is soon on her deathbed refusing the doctor, while Anne stands timidly in the hallway, meekly taking her own medicine from a spoon.

In 2016, BBC Two’s documentary Being the Brontës described the sisters’ “frail bodies” giving up on them “so young,” again suggesting a kind of fatalism about their deaths. Carl Barnes’s brilliantly funny musical Wasted, however, seems to deliberately reference the sheer absurdity of so much death in one family. Branwell is handed copies of his sisters’ published works and then immediately dies. Emily sings that she is a “Goth before my time” and then dies. Anne laments a miserable life in which she has never been touched by a desiring hand – and then dies.

Whether with surreal humour or with pathos, the Brontës’ deaths have often been presented as though they were all characters in a novel. It seems as though we want Emily, in particular, to have died because she was ready to do so, or because a tragic fate willed that it was her time.

A little more reality

Perhaps the more mundane suggestion that one sibling caught the disease from another, or from anyone else, undermines the idea that the Brontës were as unique or Romantic as we have often liked to think.

Wasted contains swearing, anachronism, and sexual references. Sally Wainwright’s To Walk Invisible (2016) also invited us to contemplate the Brontës with Yorkshire accents, and a swearing, drug-addled Branwell. There seems to be space now for a less reverential, Romanticised approach to the siblings. Perhaps it is time to accept that the Brontës didn’t die from melancholy, weather, or death wishes, but because they were infected with bacteria.

A drama or biography which allowed this possibility would open up some fascinating new ways to think about the Brontës and their work. I’ve written elsewhere about the importance of contagion theories and the rabies virus in Charlotte Brontë’s Shirley, but there is still more to be said about contagion, disease, and the Brontës.

All three sisters wrote about “consumptive” characters, from Jane Eyre’s Helen Burns to Wuthering Heights’s Frances Hindley to Agnes Grey’s labourer Mark Wood. Widening our understanding of tuberculosis in the lives of these extraordinary women would help us to read their novels afresh.The Conversation

Jo Waugh, Senior Lecturer in English Literature, York St John University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Why we should learn to love the full stop.



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TungCheung/Shutterstock.com

Joe Moran, Liverpool John Moores University

If you want to write a good sentence, you must learn to love the full stop. Love it above all other punctuation marks, and see it as the goal towards which the words in your sentence adamantly move.

A sentence, once begun, demands its own completion. As pilots say: take-off is optional, landing is compulsory. A sentence throws a thought into the air and leaves the reader vaguely dissatisfied until that thought has come in to land.

We read a sentence with the same part of our brains that processes music. Like music, a sentence arranges its elements into an order that should seem fresh and alive and yet shaped and controlled. A good sentence will often frustrate readers just a little, and put them faintly on edge, without ever suggesting that it has lost control of what is being said. As it runs its course, it will assuage some of the frustration and may create more. But by the end, things should have resolved themselves in a way that allows something to be said.

Only when the full stop arrives can the meaning of a sentence be fulfilled. The full stop offers the reader relief, allowing her to close the circle of meaning and take a mental breath.

Full stops also give writing its rhythm. They come in different places, cutting off short and long groups of words, varying the cadences – those drops in pitch at the sentence’s end which signal that the sentence, and the sentiment, are done.

A sentence wields more power with a strong stress at the end, where it sticks in the mind and sends a backwash over the words that went before. Weak sentences have weak predicates that come to the full stop with an unresounding phhtt. If you say that something is “an interesting factor to consider” or “should be borne in mind”, then the end of your sentence is just mumbly noise, because those things could be said about anything. A sentence with a strong end-stress says that its maker cared how its words fell on the reader’s ear. It feels fated to end thus, not just strung out to fill the word count.

Press enter

A good trick, when drafting a piece, is to press enter after every sentence, as if you were writing a poem and each full stop marked a line break. This renders the varied (or unvaried) lengths of your sentences instantly visible. And it foregrounds the full stop, reminding you of its power as the destination and final rest of each sentence. Winston Churchill wrote his speeches like this, in single-sentence lines, to more easily adjust his Augustan rhythms. If you keep pressing enter after every full stop, the music of your writing is easier to hear because now it can also be seen.

Winston Churchill: a fan of the carriage return.
BiblioArchives/Wikimedia Commons

We live in an age when the full stop is losing its power. The talky, casual prose of texting and online chat often manages without it. A single-line text needs no punctuation to show that it has ended. Instead of a full stop, we press send. Omitting the full stop gives off an extempore air, making replies seem insouciant and jokes unrehearsed.

But writing is not conversation, nor a speech-balloon text awaiting a response. A written sentence must give words a finished form that awaits no clarification. It must be its own small island of sense, from which the writer has been airlifted and on which no one else need live. We write alone, as an act of faith in words as a way of speaking to others who are elsewhere. So a sentence must be self-supporting. It must go out into the world without the author leaning over the reader to clarify its meaning. Hence the full stop.

A sentence is also a social animal; it feeds off its neighbours to form higher units of sense. It needs a full stop not just to be a sentence, but so the next one can begin. Studies have shown that young people tend to read a full stop in a text as curt or passive-aggressive. On social media, a full stop is often used between every word to sound angrily emphatic: End. Of. Story. But in writing, a full stop is not meant to be the final word in an argument like this. It is a satisfying little click that moves the dial along so the next sentence can pick up where it left off. Its end is also a beginning.


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Joe Moran, Professor of English and Cultural History, Liverpool John Moores University

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Australian literature’s legacies of cultural appropriation


File 20181016 165900 1z1205e.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Australian literature has a long history of appropriating and misrepresenting Aboriginal culture.
Tom Williams

Michael R. Griffiths, University of Wollongong

Non-Indigenous Australian writers face a dilemma. On the one hand, they can risk writing about Aboriginal people and culture and getting it wrong. On the other, they can avoid writing about Aboriginal culture and characters, but by doing so, erase Aboriginality from the story they tell.

What such writers are navigating is the risk of cultural appropriation: the often offensive taking of another’s culture. It is particularly problematic when the appropriator is in a dominant or colonising relationship with a culture’s custodians. Australian literature has a long history of appropriating and misrepresenting Aboriginal culture.

Take anthropologist A.P. Elkin and his associate W.E. Harney. These white men collaborated in the 1940s on a book translating Aboriginal songlines into anglophone ballads.

In “Our Dreaming”, a dedicatory poem to the resulting collection Songs of the Songmen, the pair open with a self-aggrandising appropriation. This opening text emphasises their ownership of works that they are merely translating.

Together now we chant the ‘old time’ lays,
Calling to mind camp-fires of bygone days.
We hear the ritual shouts, the stamping feet,
The droning didgeridoos, the waddies’ beat.

An unpublished 1943 revision by Harney, altered by Elkin, even more noticeably emphasises the two authors’ claim on these songlines. The poem is titled “To You My Friend” and the first line reads, “To you my friend I dedicate these lays,” as though Harney is bestowing this culture on Elkin directly.

The pair claim to write:

not of their huts, the bones, the dirt,
Nor the strange far look in a native’s eyes,
As he looks to his country ‘ere he dies.

Rather than this vision of the apparently doomed “native”, Songs of the Songmen would purport to extol the romantic figure of the noble savage. The poem continues:

Tis not of these we muse today:
For the ‘Dreaming’ comes, and we drift away
Into myth and legend where we’ve caught
The simple grandeur of their thought.

The pair’s poetry claims in this way to be able to salvage and recapture the “Dreaming”, represented as no longer accessible to Aboriginal people themselves.

This example shows how appropriation, far from innocent, is bound up with attitudes such as the idea of a “doomed race”. It can also be connected to such projects as assimilation and child removal; Elkin advocated both.

The Jindyworobak group

The most famous literary movement in Australia to be engaged in appropriation formed in the 1930s. They were the Jindyworobak group, their founder Rex Ingamells drawing the word from his friend James Devaney’s book The Vanished Tribes, which included a Woiwurung word list.

Jindyworobak means “to annex” or “to join” in Woiwurung. The practices of its writers were, however, more annexation of Aboriginal culture than any inclusive joining together.

Ingamells’ knowledge of Aboriginal culture came from white translators and not from Aboriginal people themselves. He visited Harney on several occasions. The Jindyworobaks both believed in the myth that Aboriginal people were doomed to extinction and advocated the appropriation of Aboriginal culture.

Another writer who found Harney to be a useful source was Xavier Herbert. Herbert drew on Harney’s notes on the Yanyuwa kinship system (Harney spelled the name Anula) and turned skin names into character names in his 1976 epic Poor Fellow My Country. He had Harney’s permission but not that of the Yanyuwa themselves. Herbert’s novel arguably offers a distorted view of Aboriginal kinship.

Contemporary currents

Some of Les Murray’s verse can be read as inheriting from Jindyworobak and its legacy of appropriation – notably his 1977 Buladelah-Taree Holiday Song Cycle, which presents a non-Indigenous family holiday as sacred to the equivalent of an Indigenous song cycle. Murray’s poetry is often innovative, but its progenitor is also famous for positing a near equivalence between non-Indigenous and Indigenous belonging

Murray has lent his name and ability to publications such as Quadrant, whose editors famously denied the existence of a Stolen Generation. Even where the poetry might be compelling for some, Murray’s reputation is nonetheless associated with Quadrant’s dismissal of Aboriginal perspectives on history and self-representation.

This history of appropriation is dispossession, using another’s culture for gain and without their permission. Yet some have been calling recently for Australian literature to return to and revive these legacies.




Read more:
Read, listen, understand: why non-Indigenous Australians should read First Nations writing


Critic and poet R.D. Wood has rhetorically asked, in the context of a discussion about the translation of song-cycles, “what might a Jindyworobak project for the 21st century look like?”. Such a project augurs poorly as a means of engagement for non-Indigenous writers.

South African-born, Western Australian poet John Mateer has used Noongar words in poems such as In the Presence of a Severed Head. The Western Australian poet John Kinsella has contextualised Mateer’s poetry thus:

In Kayang and Me, Kim Scott strongly objects to Mateer’s poetic use of Nyungar language at a reading from one of Mateer’s poems when they were both performing at an event in Canada. Scott speaks of the distress he felt at hearing a language that is only just being reconstituted and reclaimed by Nyungar people themselves, being spoken by, as he says, a white South African. There are important issues in this. First, Scott as a Nyungar is in a position to critique what he sees as an inappropriate usage of a language that has been placed under massive pressure by the machinery of colonisation.

On the other hand, his isolating Mateer’s South African origins does not take into consideration that Mateer is, both poetically and in terms of self-identity, as much a part of ‘Western Australia’ as of his birth land.

Mateer in his book Loanwords utilises borrowings and usages from a number of languages in order to reconstitute their original implications, while also building in the agency of new meaning in the language in which they are being deployed. This transnationality is the main drive of his work. Mateer meant no disrespect, I believe, but the issues are at the core of contemporary poetics. What is and is not available to the poet in creating a poetic language that carries its own intactness and its own implications for reading?

As Kinsella also argues, this is exactly where we need to be careful. While such transnational borrowings can enrich the English they emerge in, what is the effect on the speakers of the original language who are still recovering their culture in the face of colonisation?

Kim Scott has said in relation to Mateer’s work:

… there are very few forums for Noongar people to come to terms with the ideas of their ancestors … so it can feel doubly wrong when recent arrivals use those representations for their own purposes.

Others, more globally, have taken umbrage with critiques of appropriation. Kwame Anthony Appiah, for instance, has recently suggested that the idea of cultural ownership is vested in the commodity and not useful for thinking about cultural borrowing. Yet, he does not consider the numerous ways in which Indigenous culture is non-transferable – because it is a form of property grounded in kinship and Country.

Some poets who engage ethically with Aboriginal ways of writing and using language include Phillip Hall and Stuart Cooke. Hall engages with the same Gulf of Carpentaria Indigenous people, the Yanyuwa, from whom Herbert stole, but he does it through a reciprocal and ethical engagement. Hall has permission to write about these relationships. Cooke’s work includes translations of song cycles from the West Kimberley, for instance one written with the permission of George Dyunjgayan.

Non-Indigenous writers, if they wish to engage ethically with Indigenous culture, must learn to respect it as a form of property grounded in kinship and Country.


Michael Griffiths is the author of The Distribution of Settlement: Appropriation and Refusal in Australian Literature and Culture (UWAP).The Conversation

Michael R. Griffiths, Lecturer in English and Writing, University of Wollongong

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Booker Prize 2018: Anna Burns wins, but the big publishers are the real victors


Leigh WIlson, University of Westminster

In the literary world and among those for whom fiction is an interest beyond simply reading books, a great deal of attention will be given to the winner of 2018’s Man Booker Prize, Milkman, by Anna Burns. The chair of the judges, philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah, said Burns’ novel, about a young woman being sexually harassed by a menacing older man and set in Northern Ireland, “is a story of brutality, sexual encroachment and resistance threaded with mordant humour”.

Of course, each year, following the announcement of the longlist in July, the shortlist in September and finally the winner in October, a discussion takes place as to what each announcement might mean. As the Man Booker is the most prestigious, remunerative and talked about literary prize in the UK, this “what does it mean?” can be made to reach into just about every crevice of contemporary culture.

Anna Burns wins the 2018 Man Booker for Milkman.
Frank Augstein/PA

This year has been no exception – discussion of the longlist was dominated by the inclusion of a graphic novel, Nick Drnaso’s Sabrina, and discussion of the shortlist by the presence or absence of millennial writers. Discussion of Milkman will no doubt be dominated by the history of Northern Ireland, by #MeToo and by the fact that Burns is the first UK-born winner for six years.

In these accounts, the significance of the prize is restricted to thinking about those novels that reach the long or shortlist or the one that is declared the final winner. But a range of work from various wings of literary studies over the past few years can help us to answer the question of what winning means in other, perhaps more challenging, ways.

1. It’s a competition

The underlying claim of James F. English’s pioneering 2009 work in the sociology of literature, The Economy of Prestige: Prizes, Awards and the Circulation of Cultural Value, is that both the power of and the problem with prizes consists in the way they equate “the artist with the boxer or discus thrower”. Prizes are competitions.

But while the publicity might go to the winning writers, the real winners are the publishers, who need not just the increased sales and chances of film and TV adaptations that are likely to follow, but also the less tangible boost to their authority and prestige given by a prize. The real winners are also more likely to be not just any publishers, but those that have already been successful. As the novelist Joanna Walsh, among others, has noted, the Man Booker rules make submissions from small publishers very tricky because of the size of the print run required and the amount of money that involves. Because of this, a win can be a drain rather than a boost, and costs can outstrip sales if you don’t win.

2. A competition that maintains a monopoly

It’s not just that the competition is hard for small presses to enter – the big publishers have an near monopoly. In the 50 years that the prize has existed, literary publishing in English has been transformed from being made up of numerous independent companies, often family run, to being almost entirely dominated by the “big five”. These are Penguin Random House, Hachette, HarperCollins, Macmillan and Simon & Schuster. And, further, each of these is itself owned by a multinational media conglomerate.

As the sociologist John Thompson noted in his book, Merchants of Culture: The Publishing Business in the Twenty-First Century, the economies of scale made possible through mergers and acquisitions have created this almost complete monopoly. But through publishing via supposedly “separate” imprints, the big five have maintained an aura of smallness which is more conducive to the “creativity” on which their profits are ostensibly based.

Over the past 20 years, while 12 different publishers appear to have published the novels which were awarded the Prize, six of these wins were for imprints belonging to Penguin Random House. This monopoly is maintained through the prize’s rules for submissions – the number of novels a publisher can submit is directly tied to the number of longlisted novels they have had over the past few years. An imprint already marked as prestigious is more likely to win again.

3. It maintains a certain model of publishing

In his article about Amazon and its relation to contemporary literary fiction, US literary scholar Mark McGurl suggests the extent to which reading of material normally scorned by the literary critic can deliver new insights.

And close reading of the Man Booker’s rules of eligibility – while perhaps dry in comparison to reading the winner on the bus or with a reading group – is also revealing. It shows that it is not just a competition for a small number of large publishers, but that the prize is largely about the maintenance of a certain idea of publishing, too.

The rules of eligibility are almost entirely now about the publisher, rather than the novel or novelist – and key to them is the exclusion of anything with a whiff of self-publishing about it. In order to be eligible, a publisher has to prove that they are based in the UK or Ireland, but the only way of proving this is by having the accoutrements of the conventional publisher. Eligible submissions must come from publishers with ISBNs and head offices who use retail outlets for print books and who publish at least two literary novels a year. Rule 1g, through its strange, uncomfortable tautology, betrays something of just what is at stake in this: “Self-published novels are not eligible where the author is the publisher.”

What the various methods of literary studies can suggest, then, is that, contrary to nearly everything written elsewhere about the Man Booker Prize, it arguably doesn’t really matter which novel wins. Whichever wins, I’d suggest that the real winner is an intensely conventional notion of publishing. It’s an idea of publishing where sales and prestige are the most important consequences of winning prizes and where a few very large publishers dominate.

And, to continue that domination, the most novel uses of contemporary technology, which can open up spaces for the most innovative aesthetic forms become illegitimate. If you want to see examples of this kind of work, look to the recently published novel, Gaudy Bauble, by Isabel Waidner (published by Dostoyevsky Wannabe) – a book of experimental writing published in an innovative way. Under the current rules, such novels could never gain the coverage and attention offered by the Booker. And that’s a great pity.The Conversation

Leigh WIlson, Professor of English Literature, University of Westminster

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.