Leo Marx on ‘Bartleby the Scrivener’

One of the great scholars of American Studies at Amherst College and MIT, Leo Marx, wrote an essay about Bartleby the Scrivener for Sewanee Review in 1953.  (Somewhere in my old files, I still have my notes from Leo’s lectures on Moby Dick and Bartleby in his American Literature course at Amherst in 1967.)  Below is a PDF for anyone interested in some classic insights into Melville’s mysterious story.

Leo Marx, ‘Melville’s Parable of the Walls’ (1953)

Thesis about ‘flying away’ in African-American folklore & a note from The New Yorker

Elissa has discovered an honors thesis (from Ball State University) entitled, Fly Away Home: Tracing the Flying African Folktale from Oral Literature to Verse and Prose, a chapter of which is devoted to Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon.  I’ve posted below a PDF file of that chapter (it runs 10 pages) and another PDF of the entire thesis.  —  Many thanks to Elissa for some great research.

Elissa also found a short piece about the same subject in The New Yorker from earlier this year.  The writer is a documentary film-maker.

The New Yorker: Revisiting the Myth of the Flying African (March 7, 2019)

‘Way in the Middle of the Air,’ by Ray Bradbury (vs. ‘I’ll Fly Away’?)

A few hours after our first discussion of Song of Solomon, I stumbled across an old short story by Ray Bradbury that echoed in a most bizarre way the imagery about “flying away” that we found so prevalent in Morrison’s novel.  Way in the Middle of the Air is one of the most famous (infamous? well, not really…) chapters in Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles and has been discussed endlessly in high school English classes ever since the 1960’s.  Given when it was written (late 1940’s) and its subject matter (a liberal northerner writing about the redneck south), there’s a lot of casual racism and stereotyping (Bradbury was no Faulkner). On the other hand, I can hear different layers of “group fantasy” wrapped around each other in fascinating combinations (white on white, white on black, black on white … not to mention north vs south, elites vs ‘good old boys’ etc.)  So as an exercise in “comparative imaginations,” I find this short science fiction fable interesting and not irrelevant to our discussion of the myths in Song of Solomon.  —  Tom

Ray Bradbury, ‘Way in the Middle of the Air,’ from The Martian Chronicles

Two Articles

These two articles from The New York Review of Books, separated by almost 40 years, seem to me to speak to each other. Diane Johnson’s article is a review of Song of Solomon. As a white woman, she has a very hard time with the bad behavior of the characters in Song of Solomon. They are not, she worries, exemplary, though putting it that way does not do complete justice to her take on Morrison. Zadie Smith’s article is a personal and fascinating discussion on the issues of appropriation. She explores what it means for both reader and writer to enter the imaginary world of people unlike themselves, an issue of heated debate these days. I think the Smith essay is brilliant.

MS Word files:

PDF versions:

“A Life in Language” – An Interview from The Guardian, 2012

An interview with Toni Morrison in The Guardian newspaper (UK) in 2012 might be subtitled, A Life in Language.  Morrison speaks about her work and her childhood; politics and culture; and, at the end, the untimely death of one of her sons.  She relates everything she says back to language – its use and misuse.

The Guardian, Toni Morrison Interview (13 Ap 2012) (PDF file)

(Link to the original Guardian article )

Excerpts from the article [I retain the British spelling]:

When Morrison was 17, she had tried out a thought experiment. … On the news, she had seen footage of some white mothers in the south trying to turn over a school bus with black children in it. “I didn’t know if I could turn over a bus full of little white kids. I didn’t know if I could feel that … fury. And I tried very hard to. This is what I did: I said suppose horses began to speak. And began to demand their rights. Now, I’ve ridden horses. They’re very good workers. They’re very good racehorses. Suppose they just want more. Suppose they want to go to school! Suppose they want to sit next to me in the theatre. I began to feel this sense of – ‘I like you, but…’; ‘You’re good, but…’ Suppose they want to sleep with my children?!” She’s laughing heartily now. “I had to go outside the species! But it worked, I could feel it. You know; don’t sit next to me.”

[Her novel Home] is dedicated to her son, Slade, who died 18 months ago and in the face of whose death she found herself wordless. She could not work. She could barely speak and didn’t want to hear comforting words from others.

“What do you say? There really are no words for that. There really aren’t. Somebody tries to say, ‘I’m sorry, I’m so sorry.’ People say that to me. There’s no language for it. Sorry doesn’t do it. I think you should just hug people and mop their floor or something.”

“I used to think there was a Republican attitude and language that, although I vehemently disagreed with it because I thought it was fraudulent, it wasn’t dumb. It made some sort of sense. If you really and truly think that the United States is free, and capital is free – none of that’s true, but if you really believe it – you can develop an argument that’s not embarrassing. But they don’t do that any more. They use coded words.”

[Editor:  Such as Newt Gingrich referring to Obama as the “food-stamp president”; Mitt Romney accusing him of wanting America to be a “welfare state”; etc.]