The United States entered World War I in 1917 and that 100-year anniversary makes this a perfect time to visit the National World War I Museum and Memorial in Kansas City, Missouri. No one is left who lived through it to talk about the “War to End All Wars.” For many the war seems so remote, it’s hard to understand the magnitude of what happened, how it led to World War II and its importance today. That’s a job this museum does well with a gripping array of exhibits, artifacts and art that explains the complex occurrences that led to the war, the unbelievable carnage.
The memorial was built in 1926, but the museum opened in 2006. Visitors enter by walking on plexiglass floor over a field of poppies. You could spend hours here partly because exhibits cover not only the U.S. involvement but that of the many countries involved across the whole world. There’s something to interest everyone from weaponry, to the uniforms and equipment of soldiers and nurses, medical techniques developed during the war and more.
Not familiar with World War I history? Even if you’re not visiting this museum soon, there are several terrific books I recommend: The Guns of August by Barbara Tuchman is a non-fiction classic and you can’t beat the classic fiction books All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque, A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway, Regeneration by Pat Barker and Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks (one of my all-time favorites.) Also suggested, a new book The Last of the Doughboys by Richard Rubin.
It’s not easy to find Julie Schumacher. Like the setting of her book, Dear Committee Members, winner of the James Thurber Prize for Humor, her office in the English Department at the University of Minnesota seems exiled to a warren of rooms deep in the bowels of Lind Hall on the East Bank campus. Go downstairs, through some doors, down a hall, through the door with the arrow on it and its on the right somewhere at the end of the hall. Leave a trail of breadcrumbs to find your way back.
Also, like her fictional protagonist, Jay Fitger, she’s a creative writing professor and pens scores of letters of reference for students who are applying for jobs and grad school. Dear Committee Members consists solely of such letters in which the arrogant and curmudgeonly Fitger reveals more about himself than his students.
Peppered with a hilariously snooty vocabulary (with phrases like “floculent curds”), his letters perpetually digress to lament his department’s lack of status in the University, the ongoing building repairs and the trials of having an office next to the bathroom. “…we are alternately frozen and nearly smoked, via pestilent fumes, out of our building,” says Fitger. “Between the construction dust and the radiators emitting erratic bursts of steam heat, the intrepid faculty members who have remained in their offices over the winter break are humid with sweat and dusted with ash and resemble two-legged cutlets dredged in flour.” He bemoans the lack of respect for the liberal arts and the struggle of dealing with office technology—topics dear to Schumacher’s heart. Clearly, she follows the old adage “write what you know.”
Yet, when you do arrive at her office, it’s easy to see that Julie Schumacher is no Jay Fitger. She’s downright pleasant, enjoys her colleagues and proudly shows off her former students’ published novels. She swears her letters of reference never wander off, Fitger-like, into completely inappropriate discussions of sexual indiscretions around the department. Finally, unlike poor Jay, her work regularly receives recognition.
She was first woman to win the Thurber Prize in its 18-year history.The award is named for James Thurber, the author of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, the creator of numerous New Yorker magazine cover cartoons and one of the foremost American humorists of the 20th century. Previous Thurber Prize winners have included Jon Stewart, David Sedaris and Calvin Trillin.
So many women have written funny books—Tina Fey, Nora Ephron and Betty White to name a few—it’s surprising that a woman hasn’t won the Thurber prize before now. See my previous post about James Thurber. That changed last year when all three of the finalists were women including New Yorker cartoonist Roz Chast for her memoir Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? and Annabelle Gurwitch for I See You Made an Effort: Compliments, Indignities, and Survival Stories from the Edge.
As the first woman to win, Schumacher recognizes the irony that her lead character is a man. “It never occurred to me to make him a female,” she says. “This character has certain expectations of power, a big ego and he’s crushed when things don’t turn out professionally and romantically. It had to be a guy.”
Schumacher came to this place of distinction through long experience and serious practice of her craft. She grew up in Delaware, graduated from Oberlin College and from Cornell University with an MFA in fiction. She joined the University of Minnesota faculty after teaching as an adjunct at several Minnesota colleges in an effort to “keep an oar in the water” while raising her two daughters. Along the way she published books for young readers, a short story collection, and a critically acclaimed first novel, The Body of Water.
Of Dear Committee Members she says, “I didn’t start out to write a funny book. Actually, it’s a really a sad book. For Jay, things haven’t turned out like he expected, he’s besieged and disappointed. He’s a complicated character. I fell in love with him.”
Her sophisticated style of humor eschews the raunchy (no f-bombs here) in favor of writing that observes the funny in everyday life and in human nature. “The trick,” she says, “is to push the discomfort of a character’s behavior just to the edge, but not too far.” That makes it perfect for an award named after James Thurber. “Humor, he said, is “a kind of emotional chaos told about calmly and quietly in retrospect.”
Schumacher says life today requires humor. “Its a release, a catharsis.” Through her alter ego, Jay Fitger, humor also gives Schumacher a means of serious social commentary. He says, “…there are other faculty here on campus who are not disposed to see notable scholarship ignored; and let it be known that, in the darkened, blood-strewn caverns of our offices, we are hewing our textbooks and keyboards into spears.”
Join Off the Beaten Path in welcoming Terri Peterson Smith, author of Off the Beaten Page: The Best Trips for Lit Lovers, Book Clubs, and Girls on Getaways. Smith will take us on a tour of America’s most fascinating literary destinations and will provide inspiration and suggestions to plan your own literary getaway.
On one of my favorite kayak trips from Rockport, on the Massachusetts coast, is to the Dry Salvages, a group of giant rocks off the coast of Cape Ann. It’s fun to paddle out there and even more fun when grey and harbor seals pop up next to your kayak to check you out.
I later learned that the Dry Salvages inspired T.S. Eliot’s “The Dry Salvages,” the third poem in his sequence Four Quartets. Eliot spent his summers on Cape Ann in Gloucester and the the poet’s estate has just acquired the Eliot family’s summer house by the sea there which the family sold many years ago. The estate plans to use it to promote Eliot’s life and works to his American readers. Hopefully that means lovers of literature and old houses may have a chance to take a tour. Read about it in this article in The Guardian.
The Dry Salvages obviously pose a danger for ships and many have crashed on them, hence the name. And, during the death and destruction of World War II, Eliot found used them as a symbol.
“the menace and caress of wave that breaks on water/ The distant rote in the granite teeth,/ And the wailing warning from the approaching headland…”
But, on a sunny day, in a brightly colored kayak, with seals around, the Dry Salvages seem a lot less dismal.
I’ve used this image in an earlier blog post. Obviously, Cape Ann is one of my favorite spots. In response to The Daily Post’s weekly photo challenge: “Afloat.”
Before William Sydney Porter, aka O. Henry wrote his famous short story “The Gift of the Magi,” he lived for a few years in Austin, Texas. The tiny house he rented survives as a museum. It’s tucked in right next to the giant Hilton Austin in the center of town and this property looks like it would have great potential to become a parking lot or fast food joint, and in fact it barely missed the wrecking ball back in the 1930s.
As I’ve mentioned in a previous post on authors’ homes, the places where famous authors lived are often a disappointment compared to the places they describe in their books. And, a huge modern building right next door doesn’t help you envision the author’s life as it was in the 1800s. Nonetheless, if you’re in Austin, you should pay a call at Porter’s house, if only to get a taste of how people lived at the time. The price is right, too. It’s free, but please make a donation when you leave.
While he resided here (1893 to 1895), Porter made his living drawing maps for the General Land Office and publishing a paper called the Rolling Stone (quite different from the current publication of that name). Before you go, be sure to read a couple of his most famous stories–“The Gift of the Magi” or “The Ransom of Red Chief.”
Ah, the symbolism. If Porter could see his tiny home now, wedged in next to the giant hotel, I’m sure he would find inspiration for another story.
There are certain aspects of Paris that have always captured my imagination, most of them in some way related to literature. The French Revolution, for example, fascinates me, a fact I trace back to middle school when I read Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities. Charles Darnay, Sydney Carton, Madame DeFarge and her nasty band of peasant rebels all made Paris seem real to me long before I had an opportunity to actually see it. Then, Victor Hugo’s Hunchback of Notre Dame and Les Miserables added to my panorama of Paris.
From Victor Hugo, fast forward to the Jazz Age of the 1920s, when artists and writers swarmed to Paris like bees to honey. If you saw Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, you have a feel for the era when American expat writers such as Hemingway and Fitzgerald lived in Paris but seem to spend more time carousing than writing. That was about 90 years ago, but you can still see most of the places that Hemingway describes so beautifully in A Moveable Feast. The book is a virtual guidebook to the places he found most remarkable when he lived in Paris with is first wife, Hadley in the 1920s (and with subsequent wives later on).
The story goes that, in the 1950s, a trunk full of notes on his first years in Paris turned up at the Ritz Hotel. That gave him the raw material to write A Moveable Feast. So, take a little stop at the Ritz, near the Place Vendôme, especially at the hotel’s Hemingway Bar. During the Liberation of Paris in 1944, Hemingway considered it one of his first duties to “liberate” the Ritz bar and order martinis all around. Here at the Ritz, Hemingway asked Mary Welsh to become his fourth wife. The hotel is closed for renovations but will open this year. CoCo Chanel lived at the Ritz and one of the rooms in the Imperial Suite re-creates one of Marie-Antoinette’s rooms at Versailles.
If, like most of us, you lack the Versailles-level budget required to stay at the Ritz, consider staying in the Contrescarpe neighborhood where Hemingway lived in the 1920s. Be sure to pause at 74 Rue de Cardinal Lemoine where he and Hadley lived from 1922 to 1923, “the Paris of our youth, when we were very poor and very happy.” He describes their apartment:
Home in the rue Cardinal Lemoine was a two-room flat that had no hot water and no inside toilet facilities except an antiseptic container, not uncomfortable to anyone who was used to a Michigan outhouse.”
This apartment is where Hemingway wrote The Sun Also Rises, the book that made him famous. Below it is a shop that used to be a bal-musette or dance hall. It appears in The Sun Also Rises as the bal where we first meet Lady Brett. (Rest assured, you don’t have to live like a starving artist in this neighborhood. If you can book far enough ahead, try the Hotel D’Angleterre where Hemingway once stayed.) Wander Place Contrescarpe, a rough old square packed with cafes and apartments that couldn’t have changed since the 1920s. Take a morning stroll through the Marche Mouffetard (prime time is Saturday and Sunday morning), a fantastic market with produce, cheese, wine and just about anything you’ll need for your own feast, a picnic by the Seine or in the nearby Luxembourg Gardens.
If you walk downhill from Hemingway’s apartment on Cardinal Lemoine you’ll come to the Seine where you’ll see the famed expat bookstore, Shakespeare and Co., and across the street, Notre Dame Cathedral. From here, you can follow the steps of Jake and Bill in The Sun Also Rises as they circle the Île St-Louis. The stalls of the bouquinistes–sellers of antique books, magazines and a bit of tourist trash–line the walk along the river. Hemingway used to stroll here and chat with the booksellers. “I would walk along the quais when I had finished work or when I was trying to think something out. It was easier to think if I was walking and doing something or seeing people doing something that they understood.”
He adds, “With the
fishermen and the life on the river, the beautiful barges with their own life on board, the tugs with the smokestacks that folded back to pass under the bridges, pulling a tow of barges, the great elms on the stone banks of the river, the plane trees and in some places the poplars, I could never be lonely along the river.”
You won’t feel lonely in any of the many famous cafes along Boulevard du Montparnasse, either. Okay, they’re pricey and popular with tourists, but worth it if you want to sample jazz age cafe life. The Closerie des Lilas, for example, at 171 Boulevard du Montparnasse is a lovely cafe where Hemingway wrote and Scott Fitzgerald read him The Great Gatsby. La Coupole, at number 102, is a vast art deco brasserie, brightly painted by Brancusi and Chagall.
Finally, to really get the swing of the Paris of Hemingway’s era, wander the medieval lanes of the Latin Quarter where you’ll find the great jazz club Le Caveau de la Huchette at 5 rue de la Huchette. Though it wasn’t around during Hemingway’s time, it surely has much of the era’s joie de vivre. In Le Caveau’s ancient vaulted cellar you’ll find a dance floor, a swing band, and people dancing like Mexican jumping beans on a hot skillet. Sit back and watch Parisians enjoy la belle vie or join in the dancing. It’s your own moveable feast. As Hemingway concluded, “There is never any ending to Paris and the memory of each person who has lived in it differs from that of any other.”
Travel to the places you read about. Read about the places you travel.