TOM PUTNAM: Good afternoon. I’m Tom Putnam, Director of the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, and on behalf of all of the sponsors listed in your program, it’s my pleasure to welcome you to the annual Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award and the L.L. Winship/PEN New England Award ceremony. For those of you who have attended this event before and recall our past practice of organizing the literary equivalent of a police line-up here on stage, I want to assure you that Patrick Hemingway and I have not hijacked this ceremony. There are many important writers in our midst who will speak soon. Our hope for this new choreography is to give each honoree and speaker their individual moment in the spotlight and allow them to enjoy the portions of the program they are not directly involved in, out of the glare of these lights and from their seats in the audience with you.
The last time Patrick Hemingway spoke from this stage, he described his father’s work in this way: “Writing or literature is a very different art from all the others in that its basic material is everyday speech and everyday speech is a like a public place, full of dirt, litter, bad smells. A writer has to take that language which everybody uses and polish it up and push it out again so that it really makes an impression. Ernest Hemingway was very good at this. He could take those very shop-worn, dirty words, and put them together in a new way.”
Today we present the Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award, America’s best known prize for a distinguished first book of fiction, and the L.L. Winship/PEN New England Awards, honoring a book of fiction, non-fiction, and poetry with a New England topic or setting, or written by a New England author. In doing so, we celebrate writers who have put words together in new ways. For those of you who have read this year’s PEN/Hemingway award-winning book, Then We Came to the End, the phrase ‘zero grams of lasted acid’ comes to mind.
We do this annually at the Kennedy Presidential Library, home of the Ernest Hemingway collection, the world’s most comprehensive archive of Hemingway’s work. Upstairs in the Hemingway Room that overlooks that sea that he so cherished, scholars, researchers, young writers and students, come to read the words written by, arguably, America’s greatest 20th-century author. We are indebted to the Hemingway family who chose this Library as the repository for Hemingway’s manuscripts, letters, photos and ephemera, and to Patrick and his wife, Carol, who are here with us today and whose dedication and contribution to this endeavor are invaluable, for their ongoing support and loving care of the Hemingway Room and collection.
I want to thank the many people and organizations who make today’s awards and ceremony possible: Leah Bailey and The Boston Globe; the Hemingway Foundation and Society, which funds the PEN award, and its President, James Meredith, and James, please stand; the Ucross Foundation; the University of Idaho; and, PEN New England, including Helene Atwan, who chairs the PEN New England Hemingway Committee, Richard Hoffman, who chairs the L.L. Winship/PEN New England Awards Committee, and Karen Wulf, the Executive Director of PEN New England, all of whom did so much to coordinate the judging of today’s awards; The Friends of the Hemingway Collection, our membership organization, dedicated to commemorating the life and work of Ernest Hemingway which supports the purchase and preservation of materials for our archives. There is a brochure on all of your chairs and I encourage you, if you have not already done so, to join. At the Kennedy Presidential Library, Susan Wrynn, our wonderfully talented Hemingway curator; Nancy McCoy, our Director of Education; and, Amy Macdonald, our Forum Producer, who does all the behind the scenes work to get the speakers and all of you here today. Lastly, I thank my colleague, John Shattuck, CEO of the Kennedy Library Foundation, our partner in a recent National Endowment for the Humanities Save America’s Treasures grant, and the leader in the current effort to build a Hemingway Endowment.
Before we begin the presentation of the 2008 awards, Patrick Hemingway has agreed to read a passage of his father’s writing. He will be followed by Jennifer Haigh, a former PEN/Hemingway award winner herself for her novel Mrs. Kimble, and a PEN/Winship award winner for the novel Baker Towers, and one of this year’s judges who will announce the finalists of the Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award. This will be followed by the presentation to and reading by the 2008 winner. Richard Hoffman and John Crawford, who is here with his mother Joanna Crawford, daughter of Lawrence Winship, to represent the Winship family, will then make presentations to the three winners of the L.L. Winship/PEN New England Award. And this year we will hear from the Winship winner in poetry. Finally, Lois Lowry will introduce our keynote speaker, Alice Hoffman.
Ernest Hemingway was affectionately known by many as Papa, yet we are honored to open today’s ceremony with someone who can truly call him by that name. Hemingway acknowledged a degree of alchemy went into his writing. One element, I imagine, being the influence of his family. As a young boy Patrick had only a vague understanding of what his father did in his study, but he knew it somehow related to the family income. So for his father’s birthday he would give him yellow pads and pencils with hopes that Papa would write more so their family could live better. Patrick has a knack for words himself. His introduction to his father’s collected stories and his forward to True at First Light capture his own ability to weave masterfully together family lore, historical and scientific insight, and wordplay in English and other languages. In the 1990s, Patrick edited True at First Light, a previously unpublished fictional memoir that his father wrote, based on a safari they took together in 1954. Patrick lived most of his adult life in East Africa, working as a professional hunter, safari guide, and instructor in wildlife management. His interest in the natural world and game was encouraged by his father, who taught him to hunt in Idaho and to fish on Hemingway’s boat, the Pilar. Allow me one family secret, had Patrick been born a girl, his parents planned to name him, not their boat, Pilar.
Leave it to Ernest Hemingway to have penned one of the most apt descriptions of Patrick. In the novel Islands in the Stream, Hemingway describes the protagonist’s second son -- fashioned, many believe, on Patrick -- as an otter, the sort of animal that has a sound and humorous life by itself. “The middle boy,” he writes, “had a lovely, small, animal quality, and he had a good mind and a life of his own. He was affectionate and had a good sense of justice and was good company.” Patrick tells a more personal story in which his father, invoking his nickname, said to him, “Mouse” -- it’s a little hard for me to picture you as a mouse, Patrick; an otter, maybe, but not so much a mouse – “Mouse,” his father told him, “I am the wolf, and you are the coyote.” As a boy, Patrick thought this meant that he wasn’t as physically imposing as his father. Later, it occurred to him that his father may have been referring to the legendary symbolism of the wolf, an animal often portrayed as more powerful than the clever coyote. But now, he concludes, with his characteristic twinkle in his eye, the message may have been more simple than that. Coyotes, you see, outnumber wolves, and as a species have quietly done quite well for themselves over time.
Please join me in welcoming, from the wilds of Montana, the coyote among us and a man who is always good company, Patrick Hemingway.
PATRICK HEMINGWAY: Well, with that introduction from Tom, I can’t say anything. I’m just going to read this passage:
In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains. In the bed of the river there were pebbles and boulders, dry and white in the sun, and the water was clear and swiftly moving and blue in the channels. Troops went by the house and down the road and the dust they raised powdered the leaves of the trees. The trunks of the trees too were dusty and the leaves fell early that year and we saw the troops marching along the road and the dust rising and leaves, stirred by the breeze, falling and the soldiers marching and afterwards the road bare and white except for the leaves.
The plain was rich with crops; there were many orchards of fruit trees and beyond the plain the mountains were brown and bare. There was fighting in the mountains and at night we could see the flashes from the artillery. In the dark it was like summer lightning, but the nights were cool and there was not the feeling of a storm coming.
Sometimes in the dark we heard the troops marching under the window and guns going past pulled by motor-tractors. There was much traffic at night and many mules on the roads with boxes of ammunition on each side of their pack-saddles and gray motor trucks that carried men, and other trucks with loads covered with canvas that move slower in the traffic. There were big guns too that passed in the day drawn by tractors, the long barrels of the guns covered with green branches and green leafy branches and vines laid over the tractors. To the north we could look across a valley and see a forest of chestnut trees and behind it another mountain on this side of the river. There was fighting for that mountain too, but it was not successful, and in the fall when the rains came the leaves all fell from the chestnut trees and the branches were bare and the trunks black with rain. The vineyards were thin and bare-branched too and all the country wet and brown and dead with the autumn. There were mists over the river and clouds on the mountain and the trucks splashed mud on the road and the troops were muddy and wet in their capes; their rifles were wet and under their capes the two leather cartridge-boxes on the front of the belts, gray leather boxes heavy with the packs of clips of thin, long 6.5 mm. cartridges, bulged forward under the capes so that the men, passing on the road, marched as though they were six months gone with child.
There were small gray motorcars that passed going very fast; usually there was an officer on the seat with the driver and more officers in the back seat. They splashed more mud than the camions even and if one of the officers in the back was very small and sitting between two generals, he himself so small that you could not see his face but only the top of his cape and his narrow back, and if the car went especially fast it was probably the King. He lived in Udine and came out in this way nearly every day to see how things were going and things went very badly.
At the start of the winter came the permanent rain and with the rain came the cholera. But it was checked and in the end only seven thousand died of it in the army.
That’s the opening, of course, to A Farewell to Arms, and a splendid example of Hemingway’s short, declarative sentences. Thank you. [Applause]
JENNIFER HAIGH: I’m Jennifer Haigh and on behalf of my fellow judges this year, Ernie Hebert and also Ana Castillo, who could not be here today, I’d like to announce the winners of the 2008 Hemingway Awards.
I have a clear memory of standing on this stage four years ago, accepting the Hemingway for my novel Mrs. Kimble, and it’s truly one of the most gratifying experiences I’ve ever had as a writer. We’re living in an age that can be profoundly discouraging to writers, especially new writers, whose work is too often greeted with deafening silence from the publishing world. For the winner, and for the finalists, the PEN/Hemingway fulfills a vital function. It brings attention to our work.
This award was created by Mary Hemingway 32 years ago to honor the memory of Ernest Hemingway and to bring attention to distinguished first books of fiction. The winner of the PEN/Hemingway, the two finalists, and two honorable mentions, will all receive month-long residencies at the Ucross foundation in Wyoming, which is a little slice of heaven for any writer looking for the time and space to work. The winner of the Hemingway award will also be awarded a residency at the distinguished Visiting Writer’s Series at the University of Idaho MFA program in creative writing.
Our first finalist for the 2008 Hemingway award is Like Trees Walking, a novel by Ravi Howard. About this remarkable first novel, our judge Ernie Hebert writes: “Ravi Howard’s novel Like Trees Walking, a story of middle-class African-American brothers in the South and their reaction to a lynching in the 1980s, is full of care, love, anger, confusion, craft, perseverance, and talent. It is a beautiful work of art, the crystallization of a moment in our history. A book for the ages.” Ravi Howard. Like Trees Walking. [Applause]
Our second finalist for the Hemingway award is Twenty Grand, a story collection by Rebecca Curtis. About Twenty Grand, our judge Ana Castillo has this to say: “In Rebecca Curtis’ short story collection, the reader is invited to live inside marvelously crafted contemporary characters -- young women who always seem to be running away from one situation while simultaneously risking running towards something new, strange, even hard, but maybe wonderful. Her talents come through from story to story with provocative endings that are the sign of the truly gifted writer.” Rebecca Curtis. Twenty Grand. [Applause]
And now I’d like to present the winner of the 2008 Hemingway Award, Then We Came to the End, a novel by Joshua Ferris. This book is that rare phenomenon in contemporary fiction, a novel that conjures astutely and vividly the world of work. In this accomplished and very funny debut novel, Joshua Ferris recreates the daily life of a Chicago ad agency on the skids. Its peculiar rituals, inside jokes, and shared language, the surreal intimacy of its employees, who spend most of their waking hours in the company of near strangers they did not choose. As the staff succumbs one by one to layoffs and the office hums with anxiety, this sharp, witty novel reveals its compassionate heart. Keenly observed, formally adventurous, Then We Came to the End is at every turn original and relevant. A truly remarkable first novel. Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris. [Applause]
JOSHUA FERRIS: Hi, everybody. Thank you for coming. I have a little brief speech and then I’ll do a brief reading and together they won’t be brief. [Laughter]
Winning this award has been wildly unexpected and very humbling and it’s deeply appreciated. I would like to thank you personally, Mr. Hemingway, as well as Karen Wulf, the Executive Director of PEN New England, Helene Atwan of Beacon Press, Tom Putnam and Amy Macdonald of the JFK Library, and many others that I’m sure that I’m missing. I would also like to thank Jennifer and Ernest and Ana for receiving my book with such enthusiasm. My sincerest thanks to you all.
I do have a dedication in whose name I’d like to accept this award. If you’re anything like me and you’ve picked up a copy of the New York Times Magazine in the past five or ten years, or browsed the contemporary non-fiction shelves of the bookstore, or done even so much as scan the science section of Time magazine, you may have noticed a popular trend. We are suddenly fascinated by the field of cognitive science. As exciting as mapping the genome was in the last decade, now we are all abuzz about mapping the brain.
It seems that everyday a new discovery is made so that now neuro-scientists and other specialists can pinpoint for us the particular area where, say, some motor function is located, like moving the arm, or in what seat of the great matter our happiness or our unhappiness might repose. It’s very remarkable stuff. After years, centuries, really, of accepting the old Cartesian model of human beings as being, on the one hand, a body, and on the other hand, a mind -- and never shall the twain meet -- we now have a more nuanced notion of how this stuff of matter works in concert with environmental factors to create this miracle that we call consciousness. And it’s fun to think, ah, here is where the color is. Or here is where the bit is located that tells me how vital it is that I remember the date of my wedding anniversary.
I have a hard time, however, believing that when all is said and done, when the manifest destiny of the mind, so to speak, is fully realized, and the highways and byways of our brains are colonized by the billboards and the pit stops of cognitive science, that we will have an exhaustive and satisfying explanation for the remarkable experience we call being conscious. Consider, if you will, a very popular thought experiment in the philosophy of mind, about a girl named Mary. Poor Mary has spent all of her days since birth in a black and white room. A very bright girl, Mary has been given every last bit of information that science can collect, now and in the future, about the color red -- the wavelength of light which registers as red; descriptions and evocations of the color red; and, all the mechanics of the mind that start to churn and fire when it encounters something red-colored. No matter how much information or scientific breakthrough Mary may be privileged to enjoy, I still believe that after she is released from her inhumane captivity and is given by her savior prince her first American Beauty Rose, Mary will experience something new that no science could ever teach. She will be a different person. And no matter how keenly prepared she is, no matter how thoroughly science explicates her relationship with some aspect of consciousness, like seeing red, her first felt experience of it will be life-changing.
Now, science is a flagrant thief, and it has a long and irrefutable history of stealing right from under our noses our most cherished beliefs. Consider the Copernican revolution of the heliocentric universe; the rupture in space-time and Einstein’s theory of relativity; Darwin and his apes. But I’m going to go out on a limb and wager that there will always persist a gap between what science can tell us about consciousness and what the experience of consciousness actually is. Go ahead and map the brain. Name its circuits. Pinpoint its most subtle exchanges. This will never thoroughly explain the harsh human beauty of a winter blizzard or the thrill of singing along with Johnny Cash, or the delight I take in my wife’s witticisms.
And so if there does persist this gap between what can be explained and what can only be experienced, and if science will always come up short, as I believe it will, in providing a meaningful description of consciousness, what do we have to fill that gap? I suppose we have religion, although religion is a great speculation even more vexed than science. We have other fields of study: psychology, sociology, anthropology, philosophy. But these are all pieces of a single pie, the whole pie of consciousness and they can provide us only with partial explanations, half-measures of our full human scope. Only one endeavor, as I understand things, has the capacity to corral all of these disparate factions into a wide valley of variegated terrain and breath-taking views, and that is the art of fiction. All the literary arts.
Where science must necessarily end, literature begins. It does the work to narrow, or rather to fill, richly, the gap between our academic understanding of what it means to be human and our unique experience of it. It captures, as only the lived moment can, the complexities of love and the torment of loss, the primary desire for something divine, the big hearts thump-thump in beauty’s light. This is the reason we turn time and again to the poems of Dickinson and Whitman, the essays of Ralph Waldo Emerson, and the novels of Melville and of Hemingway.
And so I would like to dedicate this award to those of you in the audience, of whom I’m sure there are very many, who live a life of reading and of great writing. And who have, wittingly or not, taken up the mantle of human understanding and pushed it forward inside your quiet rooms and inside your roaring imaginations. Thank you. [Applause]
That wasn’t so funny. This part’s supposed to be funny. This is towards the end of the book:
So Benny told Jim the story of why Marcia was mad at him. Since becoming employed full-time again, he had grown aware of a phenomena that seemed to happen only at work, or at least happen with more frequency at work than other places in life, and the phenomenon was this: one person would say something and the person listening would have positively no idea what he or she meant, but not wanting to appear rude, or worse, stupid, or alternatively, not caring to waste any more time, it was easier just to nod or laugh along than it was to pause and inquire what that person really meant. This was especially true with hallway banter and kitchen talk and other types of inconsequential daily exchanges. People were indifferent to what was said, or they were preoccupied by other things, or they had long ago concluded that what passed for speech during the course of a work day was mostly the babble of idiots. “So I thought, would it make a difference, really,” said Benny, “would it honestly make a difference if instead of replying the way I would normally, I answered everybody with quotes from The Godfather?”
Jim was curious. “How would you manage that?” he said.
Benny explained that he gave himself a simple rule: nothing could come from his mouth that had not come first from the mouths of Michael, Sonny, Fredo, Tom Hagen, or the Don himself -- or anybody at all in the first two films.
“Why only the first two?” asked Jim.
“Come on, Jim,” said Benny. “You know why.”
At the conclusion of a morning meeting, during which he had remained perfectly silent, as everyone was packing up their things, Benny had turned to Heidi Savoca and said “’I spent my whole life trying not to be careless. Women and children can be careless, but not men.’” Heidi’s expression indicated she didn’t know where Benny’s comment was coming from, but more pressing than her confusion was her distaste for the remark itself. “That’s a very sexist thing to say, Benny,” she replied. Later that morning, Seth Keegan stopped by Benny’s cube to ask him a question about some revisions for a project the two had been working on over the course of the previous few weeks. “Do you have a minute?” Seth asked Benny. Benny swiveled in his chair. “’This one time,’” he said. “’This one time I’ll let you ask me about my affairs.’” “Cool,” said Seth, who entered the cubicle more fully. “I’m wondering what you think we should do about these drop shadows. What I was thinking we could do is …” Benny let him go on and on, nodding from time to time, and before long, Seth had arrived at a conclusion without needing any input from Benny at all. Just as he was leaving Benny thought, what the hell, and called out to him, “’Hey, it’s my sister’s wedding,’” he said angrily. “Oh, yeah?” said Seth. “Your sister’s getting married?” “’And when the boss tells me to push a button on a guy,’” Benny continued, “’I push a button.’” Seth stared at him. “Cool,” he said. He nodded. Then he walked away.
In the afternoon, Carter Shilling came to his cube, and Benny didn’t think he could continue if he had to talk with Carter, his scruffy, cross-eyed boss. A rasp or a boom, those were the two ways Carter communicated, and he was currently booming, raving about how stupid the client was to request such stupid changes to their stupid ad. For a long time, Benny didn’t have to say a word. Finally Carter looked up at him and asked if he agreed, that the client was stupid. “’I think if we had a wartime consigliere,’” Benny found himself answering in a small voice, “’we wouldn’t be in this mess.’” Carter gazed down at him and asked if that was code for something. “Are you saying we’re at fault here?” asked Carter.
“So, I swear to god, Jim,” said Benny. “I put on my most serious face, man. I mean, I was nothing but business, and I looked him straight in the eye and I said, ‘Carter, this sort of thing has to happen every five years or so. Helps to get rid of the bad blood.’ And both of us, at the same time, we looked back down at the ad, which the client had just ripped to shit, and he says to me, ‘Yeah,’ he says, ‘I suppose.’ As if what I had just said made any sense whatsoever. ‘Go ahead and make the changes then, he says, I don't give a damn anymore.’ And then he stormed out of my office. It was--”
Just then the two men were interrupted by Carter himself as he happened by Jim’s office on his way to the meeting. “You coming to the meeting?” he asked Jim. “On my way,” said Jim.
“Jim, it was priceless,” said Benny, once Carter had departed.
“You still haven’t explained why Marcia’s mad at you,” said Jim.
Benny was only too happy to pick up the story where he was forced to leave off. He told Jim that as the afternoon wore on, his task got more complicated. His memory of Godfather quotes was being heavily taxed, and at around three in the afternoon, Marcia started calling him with unusual frequency, almost once every ten minutes. Benny couldn’t use the phone because it would be impossible to keep to the rules of the game over the phone, so he let it ring and then checked his voicemail for messages. But Marcia wasn’t leaving messages. “I’ve told you about her brothers, right?” he said to Jim.
“You said they eat Jews for dinner.”
“Right,” said Benny. “Even the youngest is basically just a walking crowbar. The wedding’s gonna be like the Montagues and the Capulets, except the Montagues won’t have swords; they’ll have Saturday-night specials, you know, and we’ll just have the Torah and whatever shards we can collect from the breaking of the glass. Anyway,” he said.
He let his office phone ring the rest of the afternoon, puzzled why Marcia was calling and not leaving messages and answered his cell phone only after the work day had come to an end and he had departed the building. When he finally picked up, Marcia was in hysterics. Her younger brother had gotten into a fight -- he was still only a sophomore in high school -- and had to be taken to a South Side hospital. Marcia’s mother was crying, her older brothers were vowing revenge, and her father was sleeping off a nightshift. Marcia was trying to get a hold of Benny so he could help her keep things together. Benny rushed over to the hospital and inquired at the nurses’ station what room the boy was in.
“When I got there, nobody else was around. Turns out later, they were down talking to the doctor. I walked in and took one look at Mikey in his hospital bed -- Jim, he was all fucked up. Broken arm, black eyes. Big gash in his chin. But he was awake. The kid was going to be fine. And you know what I said? I just couldn’t help myself. I went right up to him and I said, ‘My boy! Look what they’ve done to my boy!”’
Thank you very much.
RICHARD HOFFMAN: Good afternoon. My name is Richard Hoffman and it’s my honor and pleasure, as a member of PEN New England’s executive board, to present this year’s L.L. Winship Awards. These prestigious awards were named for the much beloved and respected editor of The Boston Globe, Lawrence L. Winship, the father of another highly respected editor of the Globe, Thomas Winship. Lawrence Winship’s love of New England inspired these awards, which are given annually to a book of fiction, non-fiction, and poetry with a New England setting, or by a New England author. So it is fitting that we are joined here by Lawrence Winship’s grandson, John Crawford, and his daughter Joanna Crawford, who’s in the audience, to announce these awards. The L.L. Winship Awards are now a joint endeavor of PEN New England and The Boston Globe.
This is a great day in New England. For many of us the real arrival of spring is marked by this gathering of writers, publishers, editors, agents, students; by this gathering of a community of readers to honor the solitary, exacting, and important work that writers do to illumine our lives. Before we present these awards I’d like to thank our judges this year: Philip Gerard in non-fiction, Marcie Hershman in fiction, and Linda McCarriston in poetry.
And now it gives me great pleasure to announce the winner of the L.L. Winship award in fiction which goes to Rishi Reddi for Karma and Other Stories. Marcie Hershman, this year’s fiction judge, describes the book as “quiet, utterly compelling stories of individuals finding their own ways home between India, a country they love but have left behind, and the U.S., a nation that assumes they know which way to turn. Set mostly in Boston, the tales are clear and deceptively simply, yet each holds a moment so pure and human that the impact of Reddi’s work lingers.” Karma and Other Stories. [Applause]
In non-fiction, this year’s award goes to Kristin Laine for American Band: Music, Dreams, and Coming of Age in the Heartland. The judge this year, Philip Gerard writes, “Kristin Laine does a masterful job, taking us inside the lives of multiple characters, students, parents, rivals, judges, and the legendary band master at the center of the action. In less skillful hands, the anxieties and tribulations of these characters might seem trivial. But in Ms. Laine’s compassionate narrative, each takes on depth and complexity. The writing is clean, clear, and lyrical when it counts, and the story is about far more than any marching band.” Kristin Laine. [Applause]
And this year’s winner in poetry is Ann Killough for Beloved Idea. According to this year’s poetry judge, Linda McCarriston, “Beloved Idea is an era-changing book. It both marks a shift and enables it by reaching U.S. poetry’s unconscious, the source of poetry’s power and obligation that Curtis White calls the social imagination. The strategy Killough employs, the interrogation of our national literature’s many shop-worn metaphors, serves to analyze, critique and reinvent our only world. Language as social act, human as collective being, nation itself as polis materialize in Killough’s work as poetry’s lost beloved. Radically inverting the long deadening aesthetic legacy of new criticism, Beloved Idea returns to our poetry, and to us, a viable collective self.” Ann Killough. [Applause]
ANN KILLOUGH: On behalf of Kristen and Rishi and myself, we want to thank the Kennedy Library people and all the wonderful people at PEN and especially Richard Hoffman and Karen Wulf and our wonderful judges, Linda McCarriston, Marcie Hershman, and Philip Gerard. Thank you so much.
I’m going to read two poems from my book. It’s called Beloved Idea, of course, and the idea is the idea of our nation -- the ideal of our nation that I’m still attached to and many people are, despite the terrible things that have happened to it, especially in the last five or six years. And the method of the book is to take a metaphor and start pulling at the rhetoric of our national rhetoric and just see what happens. And the first poem is called “The Wound and post-9/11.” It’s about, among other things, the terrible things that you can justify if you think you have been wounded.
She took up the metaphor of the wound as if it were a newborn baby with something terribly wrong with its spine.
She knew it was her own baby and yet manifestly planetary, with referents drifting above it like dust from an invisible landscape.
She knew the most important thing about the metaphor of the wound was that it never healed.
And that it seemed to function as some sort of insertion into the argument, perhaps into every argument, as the precious unknown of the major premise of perhaps every argument.
Like a kind of Christ Child of every argument.
As though every argument were a stable full of domestic animals chewing their preordained fodder, intersected by a series of shepherds and kings arranging themselves in relation to an almost completely swaddled but infinite metaphor.
So now it seemed maybe there was actually a body of metaphors almost indistinguishable from each other.
The metaphor of the wound, and the metaphor of the unspeakable opening, and the metaphor of the inevitable sacrifice, for example, that she would prefer not to touch even with theological gloves on, a figurative body of terrible relatives in which each organ cooperated in keeping the enormous tumor of understanding in place that grew from the metaphorical body like an obscene appendage.
The body politic, for example.
The metaphor of the body politic itself being cruelly deceptive, except that there was no way of really knowing that.
She was beginning to feel trapped.
She ran down the street of her poem yelling with metaphors flying out behind her like flames.
With metaphors crawling out of her chest and mouth like gigantic beetles, and out of her one good eye.
When the mob gathered and wrestled her to the ground she just kept yelling and pointing at visible articles of metaphor.
The metaphor of the mob, for example, and of the ground, which was so repulsively comforting.
She knew the metaphor of the wound was still safe in her poem, which was turning out to be a manger like all the others.
As though the poem had begun to cooperate with the authorities behind her back, which it undoubtedly had.
And the second poem is a very familiar metaphor to all these literary people, “White Whale.” I’m very attached to Melville, especially this book, because I think he really had his finger on a sort of disease the runs through our whole history, of grandiosity and of a fadedness of a misplaced idealism maybe.
It was not just the whiteness of the whale’s skin but what was written on it.
The hereditary scars.
The way they appeared of their own accord more and more forming a network of incomprehensible commandments.
She knew that the metaphor of the whale continued to patrol the coastal waters of her national imagination like a restless lover.
And that the hunt for it seemed to be repetitive, and compulsive.
And that each hunt ended up bound to the whale by the difficult rope of its own discursive harpoon and that grievous human suffering was usually involved.
She knew that one likely referent for the whale was the leviathan obsessions of the entire metaphorical body of her nation, with its vast apparatus of conquest and high-frequency cries of longing into which the figures of individual speech were continually being swallowed like an encyclopedic series of phosphorescent microscopic organisms or Biblical prophets.
But that at the same time the whale was also in reference to some alternate and dreadfully impinging state of things.
That it was not just exhaustive and inexhaustible but possessed of some mute and terrible reality that was the object of infinite national desire.
So that the figure of Ishmael alone in the water became more and more important to her. As though Ishmael were a kind of reduction of the whale to some secular remnant.
As though by clinging to Ishmael she might have some kind of reduced hope for the release of her nation, or at least for the salvage of a traumatized but serviceable discourse of relative sanity.
As though relative sanity were what her nation wanted, or ever had.
LOIS LOWRY: Good afternoon. Everybody said that, but it bears saying again because this is a very good afternoon. I’m Lois Lowry. I’m a writer … [Applause] Thank you … Long-time member of PEN New England, and for the past three years, a member of its executive board. I was asked if I would, on this occasion, introduce our speaker today, and I said yes. That’s the way it works at PEN New England, people say yes. They say, yes, I’ll join, yes, I’ll be on that committee, yes, I’ll come to that event, yes, I’ll be on that panel, yes, I’ll drive two hours to come to that meeting, yes, I’ll help fold the chairs afterwards and I’ll pick up all the soggy paper napkins on the floor, yes, yes. We say it because we so love being part of this group of people dedicated to literature, to literacy, and to the meaning of those things in a free society. And we invite you here today, those of you who are not already a member, to say yes yourselves and to join this organization. We do not make you fold chairs during your first year.
It is today the second to last day of March, and I want to read to you what Alice Hoffman once said about March in her book called The Probable Future. I’m quoting now:
Who could blame the citizens of Massachusetts for rejoicing when spring is so close at hand? Winter in New England is merciless and cruel, a season that instills a particular melancholy in its residents and a hopelessness that is all but impossible to shake. In the small towns surrounding Boston, the leaden skies and snowy vistas cause a temporary color blindness, a condition that can be cured only by the appearance of the first green shoots of spring. It isn't unusual for whole populations of certain towns to find they have tears in their eyes all through the month of March, and there are those who insist they can see clearly for the very first time.
Still, there are some who are slower to discern the signs of spring. They distrust March and declare it to be the most perilous time of the year. These are the stubborn individuals who continue to wear woolen coats on the finest of days, who insist it is impossible to tell the difference between a carpet of snowdrops and a stretch of ice in this slippery season, even with twenty-twenty vision. Such people cannot be convinced that lions will ever be turned into lambs.
I don’t know where this book, The Probable Future, falls chronologically in Alice’s long -- more than two dozen -- list of books. Fairly recent, maybe number 21 or so. Her first, astonishingly, was written when she was only 21, a graduate student at Stanford. Her work is available now in more than 100 foreign editions. It’s enormously popular, and sadly that has somehow become a dirty word in our world of literature, hasn’t it? We say, him? Oh, he writes popular fiction. And there’s a kind of a sneer to our tone. But not when we speak of Alice Hoffman because her work is not only enormously popular, in the best sense, but also, in the words of countless critics and reviewers, and I’m quoting them now, using their words, “incandescent,” “spell-binding,” “deeply moving,” “brilliantly crafted,” “complex,” “subtle,” and “achingly beautiful.”
Alice and I have been friends for a number of years. Curiously, in thinking about what to say as an introduction, a moment came to my mind that had nothing whatsoever to do with writing. I remembered that three years ago Alice drove her much-loved dog, old and ailing, on the final trip that many of us have made to the vet, for the dog to be put to sleep. And she told me that impulsively, she stopped on the way at a McDonald’s and bought the dog a cheeseburger. It’s the kind of moment -- tender and funny and sad at the same time -- that one might find in one of her books. Alice and I have both just celebrated birthdays; we were both born in March. The March that she once wrote some people think perilous, the month in which lion is supposed to morph into lamb, well, why separate the two? I would suggest that as a writer, Alice Hoffman is something of a lion -- fierce, powerful, majestic, dangerous. And as a human being, as a woman who once sat weeping as she fed her dying dog, she’s also more of a lamb. I think we’ll hear from both sides of her as she speaks today. Please welcome, Alice Hoffman. [Applause]
ALICE HOFFMAN: Thank you, thank you. It’s a privilege for me to be introduced by Lois Lowry, who is a writer that I so admire and a valued friend. I knew Lois’s books long before I met her, and I’ve always been a huge fan of her timeless, classic fiction. Lois is the one writer that when I talk to my sons, they’re actually impressed that I know her. So Lois, thank you so much for the introduction. It’s an honor to be here with you today. I want to thank James Meredith and the Hemingway Foundation, Tom Putnam, and I very much want to thank Amy Macdonald of the JFK Library, and also thank the Hemingway family and the Board of PEN New England for inviting me to be part of this glorious day when we celebrate writers and the importance of a single voice in literature and in the world.
PEN is dedicated to freedom of expression. Since it was founded in 1922, it has been an organization which has worked tirelessly in a fight against censorship and brutality, to defend the rights of journalists, writers, and activists, not just in this country, but around the world. This philosophy of oneness is predicated on the idea that the writer is a citizen, not just of his or her own city or state or country, but is a citizen of the world. The belief that one’s literary life can be combined with a life devoted to social action is a long held position at PEN, and for me, personally, it’s a lesson that I learned from my two literary idols, my literary godmothers, and the godmothers to a generation of writers, both of whom left us recently. And with their absence, have left the world a much sadder, much less humane place. These two great writers taught me not just the importance of a personal voice in the work and craft of writing, but also the importance of adding one’s personal voice to the communal voice of humanity, as a writer who’s part of the larger web of the world.
So today, as I stand before you in this wonderful Library, I would like to honor two women who changed my life as a writer and as a human being, who clearly affected every woman writer who’s followed them. Whose voices were unique and beautiful and singular and compassionate and generous and fearless, as many women around the world who dare to write and tell their stories are today. I’d like to honor our literary godmothers, Grace Paley and Tilly Olsen.
Grace, who died at her home in Vermont this past August at the age of 84, published three volumes of extraordinary short stories that changed the shape of the short story just as surely as Ernest Hemingway changed that genre forevermore. Grace was a finalist for the National Book Award and the Pulitzer, both of which she should have won. She was elected to the National Academy of Arts and Letters by Mario Cuomo, and Mario Cuomo chose her to be the first official New York State Writer. Her stories have a unique rhythm, almost as though the words on the page live and breathe. Her characters are so real they seem to sit beside you on the couch.
Grace won many honors for her fiction and was constantly asked by her publishers and her readers for more. More stories, more books, but she didn’t have time to meet their demands. She was equally dedicated to her other life as a political activist in the fifties: working against nuclear proliferation; joining the War Resister’s League to protest against military action in Vietnam; being arrested for unfurling an anti-nuclear banner on the White House lawn. She was jailed several times and worked endlessly for women’s rights. She continued to protest until the end, voicing her opposition to the war in Iraq. In one of her last interviews, when she was asked what her dreams for her grandchildren were, she answered, “It would be a world without militarism and racism and greed and where women don’t have to fight for their place in the world.”
When writing about Grace after her death, the New York Times reported she “was among the earliest American writers to explore the lives of women — mostly Jewish, mostly New Yorkers — in all their dailiness. She focused especially on single mothers, whose days were an exquisite mix of sexual yearning and pulverizing fatigue. In a sense, her work was about what happened to the women that Roth and Bellow and Malamud’s men had loved and left behind.”
Tilly Olsen left us in January of 2007 at the age of 94. Born to Russian-Jewish immigrants, she grew up in Omaha and worked as a waitress and a domestic worker. She was a political activist in the socialist community. She was briefly a member of the American Communist Party and she spent her adult life in Berkeley, California.
Her collection of short stories, Tell Me a Riddle, was a seminal feminist work, especially the story “I Stand Here Ironing,” one of the most beloved, anthologized, and famous stories of our times. But perhaps her most powerful work was the non-fiction volume Silences. Her analysis of the silences in a writer’s life, particularly in a woman writer’s life, written while she was at the Bunting Institute at Radcliffe, was concerned with why women publish less frequently and why they receive so much less attention and so many fewer prizes than do their male counterparts. Thankfully, not today, this isn’t true today.
About Tilly Olsen’s small output, the novelist Margaret Atwood wrote, “Of the grueling obstacle course of being a wife and mother, she did not write …” -- this is Margaret Atwood’s quote – “She did not write for a very simple reason: a day has 24 hours. For 20 years she had no time, no energy and none of the money that both would have brought.” The balancing act between being an artist and being a citizen of the world, as an activist, is further complicated by being a woman and a mother. Add to that trying to make a living, and you have many silences all over the world.
Like Grace Paley and Tilly Olsen, I grew up a working-class girl, raised by Socialists who were involved in the Union movement and the anti-nuclear proliferation movement. My world was made up of women, New York Jews from Russia who prized story-telling, personal histories, folktales, good deeds and social action. They believed that doing good in the world was the responsibility of every Jew. We owed charity and kindness and compassion and action. My mother was a working single mother, a social worker for the state of New York in foster care and in protective service, helping families that were unable to function due to poverty and violence. My mother’s obstacle course was the same as Grace’s and Tilly’s, without the escape and joy of creating art and literature. As a girl, I watched that struggle and I admired that struggle, but I didn’t know that such a struggle could have a voice.
Growing up, I was a fanatical reader. I read the science fiction and fantasy that my father had left behind when he left us, wonderful writers such as Ray Bradbury and Philip Dick. I read the great literature on my mother’s bookshelf: Hemingway’s brilliant stories, Faulkner’s mesmerizing novels, Salinger’s thrilling, one-of-a-kind Catcher in the Rye. But in school and at home, I could not find a voice I could relate to as a writer. In high school, the only women who ever appeared in our curriculum were British and dead. We read Jane Austen, though people snickered at the smallness and domesticity of her world. Her wonderful novels would most likely now be deemed as too quite to be published, or relegated to chick lit, that vicious category that is meant to devalue serious books by all women by clumping together literature with drug-store fiction and thereby diminishing it all.
We read the Brontës, brilliant and challenging and with remarkable psychological insight, but deemed by critics to be overly domestic. One, with a heroin who does have a penchant for victimization, Jane Eyre, the other, a gothic melodrama that’s often chided for being an over-the-top ghost story, Wuthering Heights, which is my favorite novel of all time. These books were never viewed as being on a par with those written by their male counterparts. As a woman who wanted to be a writer, I heard that loud and clear.
When I was starting out as a writer, I was fortunate to study at Stanford University with the greatest creative writing teacher of the past century, Albert J. Guerard. Professor Guerard, who was both a scholar and a novelist, believed that the most important aspect of being a writer was the writer’s voice and that it was this unique aspect, so original and so singular, it was like a fingerprint that made for great writing. The writer’s voice was made up of childhood experience and childhood readings, adult readings and adult experience, along with dreams and desires. A writer often began to find his or her voice by imitating the writers with whom he or she felt an emotional connection. At Stanford, within a group that included Raymond Carver and Scott Turow, many writers were most drawn to Hemingway and Faulkner.
When Russell Banks spoke here before you not very long ago, he noted that, and this a quote from Russell Banks, “Like so many American writers of my generation, perhaps especially those of us who are male, my sense of the enterprise, my view of myself as a writer, my understanding of the writing process, for better or for worse, was generated and shaped by the life and work of Ernest Hemingway.” But as a New York woman, a working-class Jew who had grown up with the cultural pull towards the folktales of I.B. Singer and the novels of Kafka, as well as to family tales of life in Russia, there was, for me, no female literary identification. I had no such models. The curriculum of our shared literature had painfully few women’s voices and close to no ethnic voices.
In my room in Palo Alto, looking out at the alien landscape of palm trees and artichoke plants and blue skies, I thought of the writers who had preceded me at Stanford: Ken Kesey and Robert Stone, and of the great western realists who are currently there, and I fell mute. How could a woman write great literature? Wasn’t great literature, by definition, concerned with tackling the huge issue of war -- specifically combat, which as a woman at that time, I could never personally know? I became lost, confused about the ways in which I could find my voice. Masculine voices define greatness and the text that was used in our workshop at Stanford was called The Single Voice, a great anthology. But I noticed what was missing from the text was the same thing that always seemed to be missing -- women’s voices, women’s stories.
There were two women included, Flannery O’Connor and luckily, wonderfully, fatefully for me, Grace Paley. When I read Grace Paley’s story, In Time Which Made a Monkey of Us All, I felt an immediate connection, a shock at both the uniqueness of her voice and rhythm and the deep bond between her world and mine. This is what great writers do. They allow their readers to connect to the inside core of a piece of fiction. To feel that we too have lived similar lives, breathed the same air, felt the same horrors, experienced the same delights, as do their fictional characters. Could domestic life, women’s lives, really be the stuff of great fiction?
Grace Paley has stated that her stories did not meet with success when she began to send them out to magazines, precisely because they were female. “I had been reading the current fiction,” she writes, “fifties fiction, a masculine fiction, whether traditional or avant-garde or later, beat. As a former boy myself -- in the sense that many little girls reading Tom Sawyer know they’ve found their true boy selves -- I had been sold, pretty early on, the idea that I might not be writing the important, serious stuff. As a grown up woman, I had no choice. Everyday life, kitchen life, children life had been handed down to me, my portion, the beginning of my big luck, though I didn’t know it.” The big luck is the ability to have compassion and empathy, to express the inner-workings of family-life and that is important and serious stuff.
As feminists and activists, Grace Paley and Tilly Olsen were in touch with both the inner and outer worlds, of what matters most: love, loss, heartbreak, the scars of war, the violence and joy of everyday life. And yet then and now, it is a struggle to have the voices of women be heard and the stories that they tell truly be valued. Of her beginnings, Grace writes, “I was a woman writing at the early moment when the small drops of worried resentment and noble rage were secretly, slowly building into the second wave of the women’s movement. Others, like Tillie Olsen, who was writing stories in the forties and fifties, had more consciousness than I and suffered more. This great wave would crest half a generation later, leaving men sputtering and anxious, but somewhat improved by the crashing bath. Every woman writing in these years has had to swim in that feminist wave. No matter what she thinks of it, even if she bravely swims against it, she has been supported by it – the buoyancy, the noise, the saltiness.”
When I think of the life that I was fated to, as a woman and as a mother, I think of it as my big luck. Although I don’t believe that a writer has personally to live and experience to write about it or to emotionally intuit the feelings and thoughts related to that experience, motherhood -- the process of giving birth and caring for an infant -- enlarges and changes one’s view as a writer and as a citizen of the world. What we write about, what we vote for, what we protest against, what we work towards, are all influenced by giving life, not taking it.
I found my voice in California while reading about a woman who told her story while she was ironing, and while reading a series of stories about wise-cracking, free-thinking, deep-loving women in New York City. I found the freedom to tell my own stories in my own rhythms because I knew it had been done before, brilliantly and uniquely. That gave me faith, the hope that it was possible to tell a story that mattered to myself and to my reader.
I wrote, and I kept on writing. This year is my 31st in publishing, and I will have published my 25th book, The Third Angel. I have not been silent. [Applause]
Thank you. Tilley Olsen once put forth the notion that before the late 20th century, all of the great women writers in Western literature either had no children or had full-time help. Thankfully, for me, there was Hollywood. Being a screenwriter supported my novels for many years and for that I am grateful to Warner Brothers. And also to the women before me, the writers who showed me the effects of poverty on their work, along with my mother and my grandmother, both of whom supported their families and who always said to me, “Honey, get a job.” One of the greatest gifts my mother gave to me was to never clean or cook. I have followed in her footsteps, however dusty they may be, and this has afforded me many writing hours. As proud as I am of the books that I manage to publish in a difficult publishing world, I am also committed to what I was able to do because of those books. The advance from my novel At Risk went to AMFAR and also to PEN’s People with AIDS fund. The advance from my book Green Angel supported a year of after-school programs at Girls INC. in New York City after 9/11 and also at Grand Street Settlement House, where my grandmother had found solace when she first arrived from Russia. My advance for my book of stories Local Girls was used as the seed money for the Hoffman Breast Center at Mt. Auburn Hospital. Every year, many writers have given selflessly of their time to raise funds for that center so that women with cancer will have a supportive environment, a caring place, where no one is turned away from treatment.
Grace Paley was one of those writers, and I was lucky enough to read with her several times. We were speaking of our politics on one particular night and not being as brave as she, I was nervous that there would be hecklers in the audience and I asked Grace’s advice. What should we do if someone began to berate us? “Honey,” she said to me with a huge grin, ready for the fight, “we’re gonna just sink to their level.” [Laughter]
I have learned from both my godmothers and my grandmothers that what we give back is as important as what we publish. For a few selfless, amazing women, such as Grace Paley and Tilly Olsen, activism is at the very center of their lives, sometimes to the dismay of the devoted readers who have always wanted more. All the same, a gift is a gift. A voice can use a thousand words or half a dozen. The story is what we carry with us at the deepest level. Storytelling began with grandmothers telling the smallest children those tales which have been with us since the beginning of time. Fairy tales and folktales are meant to give us a blue-print for how to be human.
Today I’d like to end by thanking you for inviting me here with a beginning. From Grace Paley’s collected stories, a beautiful lifetime of work, here is her dedication to her dear friend Sybil, which interweaves the everyday and the immortal, and these are Grace’s words.
I visited her fifth-floor apartment on Barrow Street one day in 1957. There before my very eyes were her two husbands disappointed in her eggs. After that we talked and talked for nearly forty years. And then she died. Three days before that, she had said slowly, with the delicacy of an unsatisfied person with only a dozen words left, “Grace, the real question is — how are we to live our lives?”
This is the truth of the matter, the heart of what constitutes great fiction, domestic or otherwise, this is what we remember. Thank you to Grace Paley, to Tilly Olsen, and to you here today. Thank you.
TOM PUTNAM: Thank you Alice Hoffman for those stirring, personal, and thoughtful words. You’ve also given us all permission to linger longer at the reception, despite the messy homes that we know await us when we return to our houses. The reception will follow immediately downstairs in the Pavilion. I hope everyone will join us. On your way out, there’s a document table with a display in the foyer outside this hallway with letters and photos from our archives related to Hemingway’s play, The Fifth Column, which opened this week at the off-Broadway Mint Theater in New York City. And while there won’t be a formal book signing, there are books on sale in our museum store and many of the authors here would be willing to sing in the Pavilion. Thank you all so much for coming.