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Miles Franklin Award 2014 Longlist

April 3, 2014

Earlier today Miles Franklin Literary Award’s Trust Company announced the longlist for this year’s award. As usual, it includes the full gamut – expected titles, along some surprise inclusions and omissions. One of the interesting exclusions would have to be, I think, Christos Tsiolkas’ Barracuda (my review). It certainly deals with “Australian life in any of its phases” but, like most of Tsiolkas’ work, it has strong supporters and just as strong critics.

Expected inclusions would be Flanagan’s The narrow road to the true north, which I’m hearing is many people’s favourite for the award, Winton’s Eyrie and Wright’s The swan book. These three are all on my current TBR pile. Indeed, my reading group is doing Eyrie this month, but unfortunately I’m missing that meeting. I’m thrilled to see Wyld’s All the birds singing in the list, and Lucashenko’s Mullumbimby, which is also in my sights as I’ve not read it but have read a short story drawn from it (my review). I’ve been reading a bit about McGregor’s The night guest lately in my role as Lit Classic reporter for the Australian Women Writers’ Challenge so am happy to see it here. And I have heard good things about the novels by Farr, Hay and Taylor. I must admit, though, that I’ve not heard of Rothwell’s Belomar and Shearston’s Game, so must check those out.

Anyhow, here is the long list (in alphabetical order by author) – an unusual number of 11!

  • Tracy Farr, The life And loves of Lena Gaunt
  • Richard Flanagan, The narrow road to the deep north
  • Ashley Hay, The railwayman’s wife
  • Melissa Lucashenko, Mullumbimby
  • Fiona McFarlane, The night guest
  • Nicolas Rothwell, Belomor
  • Trevor Shearston, Game
  • Cory Taylor, My beautiful enemy
  • Tim Winton, Eyrie
  • Alexis Wright, The swan book
  • Evie Wyld, All the birds singing (my review)

The prize is currently worth $60,000. The shortlist will be announced at the State Library of NSW on May 15, with the winner being announced on June 26. Meanwhile, congratulations to the long listed authors – and good luck to them for the next round.

Jessica Anderson, One of the wattle birds (Review)

April 3, 2014

I have finally read Jessica Anderson’s final novel, One of the wattle birds, which has been sitting in my beside cabinet since my parents gave it to me in 1998! Never let it be said that I don’t read books given to me – though, on reflection, I’d prefer you didn’t hold me to that! I have many many books in my TBR pile and most of them are not in the bedside cabinet. For a start, they wouldn’t fit. Anderson, though, has stayed there because she really was high priority, as I do like her. What finally prompted me to read this novel was Lisa Hill (ANZLitLovers) who recently reviewed Anderson’s penultimate novel, Taking shelter. She suggested that we swap books, when I’d read mine. When I suggested that it might take me some time, she sneakily said, “I’ll send mine up to you and then you will feel guilty if you don’t do it.” That was mean, don’t you think?

And so, being the responsible person that I am, I read One of the wattle birds and am glad of that little nudge (but don’t tell Lisa!). It is a deceptively simple book. When I started reading it, I wondered whether I was really interested in the first-person story of a 19-year-old female university student and her boyfriend. I thought I knew what it would be about, but how wrong I was. Set in Sydney, it describes three days in the life of the narrator, Cecily Ambruss, the only child of a single-parent family. Cecily’s mother, we discover, had died of breast cancer the previous year while Cecily was overseas with her boyfriend, Wil, and two other couples. Not surprisingly, Cecily is grieving deeply. Her grief is not helped by her inability to understand two things: why did her mother let her go overseas without telling her about the terminal illness and, what’s more, refuse to let her be called back, even for the funeral; and why did her (unmarried) mother stipulate that Cec must marry before she can inherit. Interesting, nest-ce pas?

Red Wattlebird (Photo: JJ Harrison, using CC-BY-SA 3.0, via Wikipedia)

Red Wattlebird (Photo: JJ Harrison, using CC-BY-SA 3.0, via Wikipedia)

The three days over which the story takes place happen to be part of stu-vac, but while Wil – good, decent, conscientious law-student Wil – is taking his study seriously, arts student Cec is distracted. She cannot get her questions out of her mind. She has given up bothering Wil about them as he’s tired of her talking about her mother. And yet, grief is like that, particularly grief after unexpected deaths. You talk and mull, and mull and talk, over and over and over.

This brings me to the birds. There is, of course, the wattle bird. Cec calls it the DOIK*, for its sound, or “no-comment bird”, because it seems to be drowned out by other birds, reflecting, presumably, Cec’s feeling of inconsequence.  In another reference to birds, Cec says :

I feel like one of those raggedy birds you see trying to feed their remorseless young. And among the gaping beaks, that one gapes widest. And among the chorus of cheeps, that one cheeps loudest.

The beaks and cheeps are the insistent questions that the mother bird tries to quieten with answers she’s gathered from others, such as her mother’s friends, her uncle and aunt, and even her counsellor. But they don’t satisfy, so she keeps searching – and eventually comes her to her father, a man who had professed to have no interest in her and whom, therefore, she had long ago decided she didn’t want to meet.

Alongside this search for answers, Cec does do the occasional study – and what she’s studying is Malory’s story of King Arthur which is, appropriately enough, a quest story. But, it raises other issues for Cec too, such as how much magic versus Arthur’s “own hands” played in his achievements. I suspect this has something to do with Cec learning that not everything has a clear, logical answer.

While all this is interesting, much of the delight in reading the novel comes from the interactions between characters. They are, generally, exquisite. The often prickly Cec has wonderful exchanges, for example, with her Aunt-by-marriage Gail, her Gran, and her father who tries his best to help her see where her mother may have been coming from. These characters aren’t paragons, but neither are they malign. They are, simply, human. My only quibble with Anderson’s characterisation is that Cec and her friends - all around 19 years old I assume – seem at times a little improbable. How many 19-year-olds – particularly university students – talk about mortgages and the like?

Anyhow, by now you must be wondering about Cec’s mother. Without spoiling anything, there’s nothing to suggest they had a difficult relationship – and the answers to Cec’s questions are probably pretty mundane. The point of the novel is, in other words, not so much Cec’s relationship with her mother but her coming to terms with her grief, her identity, and her relationship with Wil.

This novel is not easily categorised. Part quest, part comedy-of-manners, part family drama, it has some laugh out-loud moments as well as reflective ones. It explores many of the themes common to Anderson’s work. One is money and power. Cec’s family has money – “fruit and veg have been good for us” – and money is used both subtly and not so, as a means of control. Another is deceit and concealment. As the novel progresses, Cec starts to tell Will less and less. At first she justifies it because it’s all too complicated to explain – and he does tend to brush her emotional concerns off –  but, by the third day, there are many things she doesn’t tell him. “I foresee no end to the things I won’t tell Wil”, she says. And another, as the surprising last paragraph makes clear, has to do with the act of creation or, perhaps more correctly, with living life creatively.

One of the wattle birds is a tight, cleverly conceived “concoction” that makes, I’d say, a fitting conclusion to Anderson’s literary life. Has anyone else read it?

Jessica Anderson
One of the wattle birds
Ringwood: Penguin Books, 1994
Cover design: Joanna Hunt
ISBN: 9780140240320

*A not very tuneful bird. We have a resident Red Wattlebird in the tree outside our bedroom. It squawks us awake every morning.

Monday musings on Australian literature: Unpublished manuscript awards

March 31, 2014

I’ve recently reviewed a couple of books which have won unpublished manuscript awards: Hannah Kent won the inaugural Writing Australia Unpublished Manuscript Award in 2011 for Burial rites (my review), and Margaret Merrilees won the Unpublished Manuscript Award at the Adelaide Writer’s Week in 2012 for The first week (my review).

Now, I’ve discussed awards a few times on this blog, and we’ve had some very interesting discussion in the comments about the value of awards. I’m not going to reiterate all that now because, being the original fence-sitter (!), I can see both sides of the argument. Awards in something so subjective as the arts are inherently problematic I think. I get that! However, I think a special argument can be made for unpublished manuscript awards. It’s hard, as we know, for writers to get published, particularly first-time writers. These awards – particularly those limited to (potential) debut authors – must make a big difference. In fact, in an interview last year, Hannah Kent said “these sorts of awards are so important. They help you get that foot in the door”.

Over the years, I’ve come across many of these awards – at least Australian ones – and they vary a great deal in terms of eligibility and what the award provides. I thought it would be interesting to list some of them here:

  • The Australian/Vogel Literary Award: Established in 1979 (first award 1980) in a collaboration between The Australian newspaper, the company which makes Vogel bread, and the publisher Allen & Unwin. Awarded to an unpublished manuscript by writers under the age of 35. Offers $20,000 and publication by Allen & Unwin.
  • CAL Scribe Fiction Prize: Established in 2009 by small publisher Scribe with the Copyright Agency Limited’s Cultural Fund. Awarded to an unpublished manuscript by an Australian writer aged 35 and over, regardless of publication history. It’s a Late Bloomer award! Offers $15,000 and a book contract. (My Internet search hasn’t found a winner for this award in 2013, so it may not still exist.)
  • Finch Memoir Prize: Established by Finch publishers, and sponsored by Copyright Agency Limited’s Cultural Fund. Awarded to an unpublished life story or memoir and open to previously published and unpublished writers as well as to agented writers. Offers $10,000 and publication.
  • Queensland Literary Awards David Unaipon Award of Unpublished Indigenous Writer: Initially established in 1989, and then brought under the Queensland Premier’s Literary Awards in 1999 and, since their cancellation, brought under the independently run Queensland Literary Awards. Open to all unpublished Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Island writers. Offers $5,000 and guaranteed publication by the University of Queensland Press. The three runners-up are offered mentorships.
  • Queensland Literary Awards Emerging Queensland Author-Manuscript Award: Initially established under the Queensland Premier’s Literary Awards in 1999 and, since their cancellation, brought under the independently run Queensland Literary Awards. Open to all unpublished Queensland (resident at the time of the award for at least 3 years) authors. The prize is the same as that for the David Unaipon Award.
  • Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an Unpublished Manuscript: Established by the State Library of Victoria in 2003. Open to any author from the state of Victoria who has not had a work of fiction published.
  • Writing Australia Unpublished Manuscript Award: Established in 2011. Award to adult fiction, and is not limited by genre, geographic location or age of author. Offers $10,000 cash and a mentorship worth $2,000 with a mentor of the winner’s choice. Kent chose novelist Geraldine Brooks, who, as I’m sure you know, has written several historical fiction novels.

Hannah Kent’s comment that these awards are important is borne out, rather, by the ongoing success of many winners. The Australian/Vogel Literary award claims, for example, to have launched the careers of Tim Winton, Kate Grenville, Brian Castro, Mandy Sayer and Andrew McGahan. Recent awards have gone to books that quickly became high-profile, namely Hannah Kent’s Burial rites and Graeme Simsion’s The Rosie project (which won the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for Unpublished Manuscript) (my review). The inaugural winner of the Victorian award was Carrie Tiffany with her gorgeous book, Everyman’s rules for scientific living. (Coincidentally, she was the inaugural winner, last year, of the Stella Award, with her second novel, Mateship with birds.)

These sorts of awards vary, not only in terms of what they offer, but regarding who they aim to help. Many, though not all, are limited – to debut authors, indigenous authors, young authors, or authors from a particular state. Regardless of how they are framed though, I understand that, in many cases, they can and do result in publication not only for the winner but for some of the other well-judged entrants. And that, I think, is the best argument there is for the existence of these awards, don’t you?

As I expected – and hoped – commenters on the post have named other awards. They include:
  • T. A. G. Hungerford Award: Established in 1998 by Fremantle Press. Awarded biennially to previously unpublished writers from Western Australia. Offers $12,000 cash and a publishing contract with Fremantle Press.


Barbara Baynton, Billy Skywonkie (Review)

March 29, 2014

awwchallenge2014Well, I must say that “Billy Skywonkie”, my fifth* story from Barbara Baynton’s Bush studies, fair near defeated me, so I was rather relieved to read in Susan Sheridan’s introduction that “in this story and others, Baynton’s use of dialect to represent the speech of these uneducated bush folk can also act as a barrier to understanding”. I did understand it, but only just in places. I reckon it would be a good one to hear in audio version.

The story concerns a woman from the city coming to work as “a housekeeper” on a station in drought-ridden outback Australia. It starts on the train, in which she travels with a bunch of drovers accompanying their cattle. En route several cattle die in the heat and squash of their carriage, and the drovers make no attempt to speak nicely to the woman sharing their journey. This sets the scene for the coarse speech, lack of any sort of chivalry, and racist attitudes that feature in the rest of the story after she is picked up by rouseabout Billy Skywonkie in the buggy.

On the first page, Baynton describes the country our female passenger is coming to:

The tireless greedy sun had swiftly followed the grey dawn, and in the light that even now seemed old and worn, the desolation of the barren, shelterless plains that the night had hidden, appalled her.

As she alights at the Gooriabba siding her dismay – and hesitation – as the train disappears in the distance is palpable. There is a buggy waiting but, although she is the only person to alight, the driver seems not to recognise that she is his passenger! We’ve been given no description of our passenger – we have no idea how old she is, what her background is, or why she’s coming outback –  but clearly she’s not the “piece” Billy was expecting. “There’ll be a ‘ell of a row somew’ere” he rather ominously pronounces.

Most of the rest of the story concerns the 12-mile trip – perhaps a bit more given Billy’s shortcut to the “shanty” – to the station. Nothing that happens on the trip goes anywhere near reassuring our passenger or, in fact, the reader, that things are going to get better. Billy evinces no kindness to his charge – leaving her sitting in the hot buggy while he has a drink and a flirt with Mag in the shanty – though he is kind to the drunk kangaroo-shooter collapsed in the sun outside the shanty. That’s telling.

This is racist country. Chows or Chinks in particular are not liked. “Blanky bush Chinkies! I call ‘em. No one can tell them apart”. Billy would rather “tackle a gin as a chow any day”, and we soon learn why. His missus, Lizer, is “dusky”, and has him under her thumb, though not enough to prevent his little side-trips to Mag!

There’s rough humour here. The characters tease Billy Skywonkie (whose name apparently means “weather-prophet”) with the question, which they find hilarious, “W’en’s it goin’ ter rain?”. There’s no lightness in the story’s humour though. It’s mostly bitter, unkind stuff, as though the land doesn’t encourage any sort of empathy or genuine relationship. Baynton’s people in this story are not the heroic or tragicomic bushmen of Henry Lawson, Banjo Paterson and Adam Lindsay Gordon. They are, well, base – and the story’s unrelenting language leaves us in no doubt regarding how we are to read it.

When Billy finally arrives at the station with his charge, things do not turn out well, but why is something I’ll leave you to found out (by reading the story in the link below). My problem, though, is that not telling you why severely hampers my discussion of this story. It’s interesting that “Billy Skywonkie” is not as well known as “The chosen vessel” or “Squeaker’s mate” because its exploration of racism, in particular, must surely be pioneering. I certainly found it powerful when I realised what had been going on under my nose! It may be that the challenges involved in reading it, and the ambiguities it contains, put readers off, but it deserves wider readership and attention.

And now, I have one story to go to complete my reading of Bush stories. What an interesting and eye-opening collection it is for one used to romanticising the bush!

Barbara Baynton
“Billy Skywonkie”
in Bush studies
Sydney University Press, 2009
ISBN: 9781820898953

Available online: in Bush studies at Project Gutenberg.

*For my previous reviews of stories in this book, click the appropriate title: A dreamerScrammy ‘and, Squeaker’s mate, The chosen vessel.

Hannah Kent, Burial rites (Review)

March 27, 2014
Hannah Kent, Burial Rites bookcover

Courtesy: Picador

“We’ll remember you” says Margrét to Agnes on the day of her execution. We sure will, if Hannah Kent’s debut novel Burial rites has anything to say about it. Kent’s book is the second novel set in Iceland I’ve read, the first being Icelandic writer Halldor Laxness’s unforgettable Independent people. Although Laxness’s novel is set a century after Burial rites, it prepared me for Kent’s novel – for the difficult landscape, the hard lives, and the unforgiving natures that such an environment can engender. Yes, that’s a generalisation I know. You can find unforgiving natures anywhere, but oh, they work so well in harsh environments. Just think, for example, of My Antonia (my review).

But now, what to say about a book that hit the book stands running? I wanted to read it last year, but I also wanted to read it with my reading group, which is why I have only now read it. Reading a book so late can make it difficult to add anything meaningful to the conversation. Fortunately though, while I couldn’t avoid the early buzz, I haven’t read the myriad reviews out there, enabling me to come to it reasonably freshly. So, here goes …

Remember your place, Agnes

It’s a compelling read. Icelanders may know the basic story, but we don’t. It concerns Agnes Magnúsdóttir – great sounding name, eh? - who, in 1830, was the last person to be executed in Iceland. She and two others, Fridrik Sigurdsson and Sigrídur Gudmundsdóttir, were convicted of murdering Natan Ketilsson, a complicated and probably cruel man, and his friend Pétur. Fridrik was also executed, while Sigrídur’s sentence was commuted to life imprisonment. Apparently, executions were normally carried out in Denmark but District Commissioner Björn Blöndal wanted to make an example of Agnes. As it would take some time to organise the executions and as Iceland had no real prison facilities, Agnes and Fridrik, were, literally, farmed out to live with public officials who were also farmers. Most of the novel takes place on the farm, Kornsà, to which Agnes was sent. The main characters, there, are the farmer’s dying wife Margrèt, her two daughters Steina and Lauga, and her husband Jón. Making regular visits is Assistant Reverend Tóti, chosen by Agnes to be her religious adviser. As the novel progresses, we also meet the victim and Agnes’s co-murderers.

Kent creates a believable world in which the people at Kornsà are initially resentful and fearful, but gradually, more gradual for some than others, come to recognise Agnes’ humanity and to believe that her sentence “isn’t right”. Similarly, the anxious but conscientious Tóti grows through his relationship as Agnes’ mentor. We learn about Agnes’ childhood, in which she is early deserted by her mother and then loses a loving foster-mother through death in childbirth. And we learn about her struggles to support herself as a woman. She thought she’d found her place with Natan, who seemed to offer her love while also offering her a job, but he soon reminds her of “her place”! Kent’s Agnes lives most of her life alone, lonely, and unsupported, which was probably not uncommon for women of her class at that time. This is, I’m sure, one of the themes Kent wants to explore in her novel.

You could argue that, overall, Kent’s women are fleshed out more than her men, but this is Agnes’ story and we know, I think, what we need to know about the men. There is a feminist reading to the book, but it is also more broadly sociological, to do with poverty and disempowerment. That women are more likely than men to find themselves in these positions is part of the problem.

This is what I told the reverend

Kent doesn’t use a simple, direct narrative to tell her story. (What novelist does in this post-postmodern world of ours!). For a start, she opens each chapter with one or more translated archival documents. This regular interruption of the main narrative could irritate readers by breaking emotional engagement with the story, but I found it enhanced the novel, particularly considering Kent’s intentions. One of these intentions, as she explained in an interview at last year’s World Book Expo, relates to the fact that she sees the novel as “speculative biography” not “historical fiction”. She describes, in this and other interviews, her methodology which was to use facts wherever they were available. Where the facts weren’t available, she says, she did broader contextual research about Iceland to imagine what was most likely to have occurred. She felt “free to invent” only in the outright gaps. She describes this approach as “research-driven creative-practice”. It’s logical, given all this, that she would use archival documents to support her “story”.

The other main narrative technique Kent uses is to switch voices from first person for Agnes, to third person for everyone else. This also makes sense given that Kent’s prime motivation was to give Agnes a voice, to “find her ambiguity, her humanity” and lift her out of the prevailing, more caricatured image. Again, I think it works, mostly. Agnes’ voice is distinctive, strong, and wavers, as you would expect, from confidence and hope to anxiety and fear. However, there were times when the switch back to third person seemed unnecessary. Mostly the third person sections focus on other characters, even when they are interacting with Agnes, but on a couple of occasions the shift occurs in the middle of Agnes’ story. One minute she is telling her story – “This is what I told the reverend” – and next minute the reverend asks “What happened then” and her story continues in the third person with her words in quotation marks. This was a little disconcerting, though it didn’t spoil the story significantly.

A magic stone

While the main point of the novel is Agnes’ story, Kent, in the process, paints a rich picture of Icelandic society, of the farmers, healers, neighbours, poets, gossips, maids and so on. Religion is clearly important, but for some characters, omens and superstition are equally if not more powerful. Natan is depicted as highly susceptible to bad omens, and for Agnes the ever-present ravens – “their black feathers poisonous against the snow” – reflect her sense of aloneness, and bode ill. By contrast, stones suggest good luck:

The stone Mamma gave me before she left. It will bring you good luck, Agnes. It is a magic stone.

It is, therefore, telling when she spits out a stone from her mouth on the day of her execution.

This brings me to Kent’s writing. It’s strong, evocative and often visceral. She uses motifs, like the ravens and stones, to reinforce her ideas. (It’s probably not coincidental, either, that the novel has thirteen chapters!). She is though, a first-time novelist, and at times the writing becomes a little heavy-handed, like this, for example:

Sometimes, after talking to the Reverend, my mouth aches. My tongue feels so tired; it slumps in my mouth like a dead bird, all damp feathers, in between the stones of my teeth.

But who’s complaining? Burial rites is a magical read that gets you in from the first page and doesn’t let you go until you get out your hanky at the end. Consider yourself warned.

awwchallenge2014Hannah Kent
Burial rites
Sydney: Picador, 2013
Design: Sandy Cull
ISBN: 9781742612829

Monday musings on Australian literature: Pascall Prize

March 24, 2014

The Pascall Prize is one of those under-the-radar sorts of awards, that is, one that tends not to get much general press. However, that doesn’t mean it’s not significant. In fact, I’ve had it in my list of topics for a couple of years but, having mentioned in my David Malouf birthday post last week that he was a recipient, I decided that now’s the time.

The Pascall Prize has another name which better explains what it is - “The Australian Critic of the Year”. Its aim, defined on its website, is:

to reward a critic or reviewer whose work changes the perceptions of Australians, opens their eyes to a different perspective of their culture, develops a new interest in the subject and is both imaginative and creative.

The Pascall Prize celebrates incisive and well-crafted critical writing in areas including literature, art, architecture, food and wine, music, theatre, film, television, and radio [and now the Internet].

It specifically excludes sport from its definition of culture. Fair enough. I suspect there are significantly more well-paying opportunities for sports writers/analysts than there are for those in the arts, though maybe I’m biassed. I have, for the record, read some excellent pieces of sports journalism. But, enough of that, back to Pascall. The website tells us that it was named after Geraldine Pascall, “a flamboyant journalist” who died suddenly of a stroke/brain haemorrhage in 1983, when she was just 38. (Scary!) She apparently didn’t have a will, so her Estate passed to her father, Fred Pascall. He wanted to establish a memorial to his daughter, and so the Pascall Prize was born. It’s awarded annually, usually I believe at the Sydney Writers’ Festival, and currently provides $15,000. David Malouf is listed as the first recipient, having received the award in 1988.

I could be clichéd and say that the recipients represent a veritable who’s who of Australian critics, but I won’t, although it does – at least as far as I can tell from my admittedly uneven knowledge of the field! Last year’s winner was Kerryn Goldsworthy. The announcement describes her as “a writer, critic, reviewer, essayist, columnist, fiction writer and blogger”. She has reviewed for many of Australia’s most significant publications, for over 30 years. I have quoted her here more than once, the first time being in 2009 in a post on Thea Astley when I quoted Goldsworthy’s reasons for loving Thea Astley. That they happen to accord with my reasons was the icing on the cake. I’ve mentioned her several times since, including recently in relation to her being the chair of the Stella Prize Judging Panel.

Andrew Ford and Jim Sharman

Andrew Ford interviewing Jim Sharman, Voss Journey, 2009

Of the other winners, the best known to me (which says more about me than anything else), include Andrew Ford (1998, music critic, composer and radio presenter), Marion Halligan (1990, critic and author), Andrew Riemer (1990, critic, academic and author), Peter Craven (2004, literary critic and editor), and Geordie Williamson (2011, literary critic). You can see a full list of the winners and the judging panels on the Prize’s Wikipedia page.

I’m not going to ramble on for long about this award, important as I think it is, but I would like to share a couple of comments made by Goldsworthy in her acceptance speech, one about the essence of being a good critic, and the other about the future. Here’s the first one:

in order to be an effective critic, you need a left brain that knows what your right brain is doing. My ideal as a critic is to come up with a rational intellectual response while at the same time continuing not just to acknowledge but to honour those mysterious places of the oceanic deep, the places where you connect most vitally and instinctively and electrically with whatever is going on in a work of art.

It’s a real juggle, and one that many of us bloggers (of whom Goldsworthy has also been one) try also to achieve. It’s what she calls “a critical brain finding ways to articulate the heart’s response”.

Regarding the future of criticism, she says:

There’s a lot of talk as we move into the digital age about what the fate of criticism will be, but I’m an optimist who thinks the that cultural conversation will continue no matter what medium it moves through, or what form it takes. What I worry about more is whether critics will go on being able to balance hearts and minds as the humanities continue to be devalued in the universities, the arts continue to be devalued in government, and fewer and fewer people are formally taught how to expand their knowledge and hone their critical skills as we navigate our way through cultural life.

Being an optimist too, I can’t believe that there won’t always be people ready, willing and able to engage with the arts in a critical way. Life sure would be poorer if there weren’t.

Do you have favourite critics you like to read? And what do you think about Goldsworthy’s left brain right brain approach to analysis?

William Wells Brown, Madison Washington (Review)

March 22, 2014
William Wells Brown,

William Wells Brown, 1852 (Courtesy Project Gutenberg, via Wikipedia)

Having recently reviewed Harriet Ann Jacobs’ story “The lover” in the Library of America‘s (LOA) Story of the Week program – and also having seen the movie 12 Years a Slave – I couldn’t ignore William Wells Brown’s story, Madison Washington, when it appeared last month as an LOA offering.

Brown (1814-1884), like Jacobs, was born into slavery. He managed to escape to Canada when he was 19. LOA’s introductory notes tell us that within a decade he’d married, moved to Buffalo, and taught himself to read and write. He lectured against slavery in both Europe and the USA. In 1847, he published Narrative of a fugitive slave which apparently sold so many copies that four printings needed to be done in less than two years. Wikipedia tells me that his novel Clotel, published in England in 1853, is considered to be the first novel written by an African-American. He lived in England from 1849 to 1854, due to the increased risk of recapture posed by the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act.

During and after the American Civil War, Brown continued to publish fiction and non-fiction, earning a reputation as one of the most prolific African-American writers of his time. He apparently actively recruited black Americans to fight in the Civil War, and supported African-American migration to Haiti.

The story published by LOA is just one from his book, The black man: His antecedents, his genius, and his achievements, which contains sketches of the lives of individuals who, Brown writes in his “Preface”,

by their own genius, capacity, and intellectual development, have surmounted the many obstacles which slavery and prejudice have thrown in their way, and raised themselves to positions of honor and influence.

He concludes his Preface with:

If this work shall aid in vindicating the Negro’s character, and show that he is endowed with those intellectual and amiable qualities which adorn and dignify human nature, it will meet the most sanguine hopes of the writer.

The sketch chosen by LOA concerns Madison Washington. But, before I write about that, I must say something about his name. I’ve often been intrigued by how many African-Americans were, and are, named “Washington”. Presumably this has something to do with George Washington, but what exactly? According to the Huffington Post, the 2000 US Census reported 163,036 people with the surname Washington, of whom 90% were African-American. This is apparently a far higher “black” percentage than for any other common name. The article describes a rather complex situation regarding the name. It tells us that during the early post-abolition period, when slaves were allowed to have surnames, many chose Washington. This is most likely linked to the president. However, George Washington had, the article explains, a complicated relationship with slavery, and so the reasoning behind the use of the name is not totally clear. Interestingly, in the case of Madison Washington, his first name is also the name of a slave-owning president? Coincidence?

Now to “Madison Washington” the story! It starts with a description of the man:

Among the great number of fugitive slaves who arrived in Canada towards the close of the year 1840, was one whose tall figure, firm step, and piercing eye attracted at once the attention of all who beheld him. Nature had treated him as a favorite. His expressive countenance painted and reflected every emotion of his soul. There was a fascination in the gaze of his finely-cut eyes that no one could withstand. Born of African parentage, with no mixture in his blood, he was one of the handsomest of his race. His dignified, calm, and unaffected features announced at a glance that he was one endowed with genius, and created to guide his fellow-man.

The story proper then begins six months into his time in Canada when his employer, pleased with his work, realises that Washington is discontented. Upon his enquiry, the story comes out. Washington had a wife with whom he’d planned to escape, but the escape plans had gone awry and he alone had got away. His aim was to work hard, and save the money to purchase her freedom, but he’d begun to realise that it would take him five years to save the required money. So, what does he do? He decides to return to the south, ignoring advice to the contrary and risking recapture, to effect her escape. As Brown reports, “Liberty is worth nothing to me while my wife is a slave”.

Well, the inevitable happens, but Washington manages to escape again, this time by orchestrating a mutiny on the “Creole” which was carrying him and other slaves to the New Orleans slave market.  Via this mutiny, he effected the freeing of 128 slaves, resulting in what is recognised as the most successful slave revolt of the period, more successful than the more famous Amistad mutiny which freed only 53 slaves.

Brown’s telling of the story shows Washington to both a principled and resourceful man – principled because of his treatment of the sailors once the ship was under slave control and resourceful because of the careful planning he’d done to prepare for an escape. It is also, though, rather melodramatic, which is typical of the times, and involves the amazing coincidence of his wife, the “majestic, “beautiful and accomplished” Susan, being on the boat. According to LOA this is “an almost certain apocryphal addition” that appeared in an article a year after the mutiny. It makes for a good story, however!

Interestingly, in 1853, Frederick Douglass wrote a novella, The heroic slave, presenting a fictional account of Madison Washington. Wikipedia, which told me that Brown’s 1853 published Clotel is considered to be the first African-American-written novel written, also states that Douglass’s novella “is now considered the first known piece of African-American fictional literature”. Let’s let Wikipedia fight it out because, in the end, I don’t think it really matters. What matters is that African-Americans were writing and being published, and that we can still access to their works today.

William Wells Brown
“Madison Washington”
First published: In his book, The black man, his antecedents, his genius, his achievements, 1862.
Available: Online at the Library of America or in Documenting the American South


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