Foreword | February 07, 2017
This issue is replete with upstarts and transgressors of varying kinds—characters who have crossed boundaries or altered things or who are trying to do so. The subject reminds me of the larger issue of change itself and the perennial fear of its messing up the future. In a postindustrial world, the pace of economic, cultural, and technological mutation sometimes seems threatening and hard to keep up with.
We all have our favorite “I can’t believe how fast x has happened”—whether “x” is thought to be good or bad—the quickly spreading acceptance of different gender self-definitions, evolving attitudes toward drug use, internet-connectedness via addictive smart phones, the use of artificial intelligence or robots, the speed at which a company can go from nowhere to among the largest in the world (or in the opposite direction), the amazing rise of billionaires, political shifts,. . . one can go on with the list.
Our sense of the rapidity and risk of change may be a bit exaggerated, especially regarding the fear that change is much more menacing now than it was in the past. Every decade of my lifetime has had what seemed at the time its “unbelievable” shifts, threats, and absolutely-for-sure apocalyptic perils. Historiographers remind us that earlier historians exaggerated the idea of stability and sameness during certain periods of the past that they falsely deemed as homogenous. For example, it was a long-held assumption that most of Europe was locked in a class- and religion-confined monotony for centuries during the Dark Ages. This notion disregarded the genuine vigor and inventiveness in certain areas of thought, commerce, and technology during that period, as well as powerful cultural differences in distinct geographic areas. Historians of colonial and early US history have long been aware that historical myths of the founding of this nation overstate the logic, coherence, and certainty of what—for those who lived through it—was a daring and fragile and even unlikely day-to-day experiment. It is only through the dimming, blurring lens of what we imagine to be historical “logic” that we view such times as unthreatening and inevitable.
Literature feeds on change and the fear of it. The novel as a genre arose partly from the increasing literacy of both sexes and the quickly evolving—for many, scary—mutability of women’s position in society and in power relationships. It is still easy to wonder about or even identify with Moll Flanders, Daisy Miller, Eliza Doolittle, or Rebecca Sharp—whether she be self-made or fake or a little of both. The character of the upstart or transgressor is a classic figure not just in the novel but in most forms of literature.
In this issue’s historically set story “The Tongues of Angels,” K. C. Frederick writes about Monsignor Baran, head of a Polish Catholic parish in Detroit in 1947. Baran is comfortable in his appointment, able to manage his subordinates in ministry and the needs and conflicts of his parishioners, despite the fairly recent race riots resulting from the city’s rapid population increase and wartime buildup of industry. Enter a black migrant from Louisiana who speaks French-inflected English and wants to join Baran’s all-white, Polish-American congregation. The would-be parishioner doesn’t know about the racial tensions in the city and the attitudes of Baran’s Polish parishioners. Faced with this challenge, the Monsignor is torn between what is morally and spiritually right and the reality of his congregation’s racism.
Peter Mountford’s “You Have to Continue, You Have to Hurry” tells about a couple who are undergoing what seem like too many changes and difficulties at once. The narrator and his wife, Vicky, are youngish, professional parents of three, struggling to maintain employment during the recession. They’re already dealing with an underwater mortgage and the uproar of family life when their youngest child gets hit by a car and is hospitalized with a brain injury. The husband is drawn to an older, attractive woman neighbor—single, childless, independent, and seemingly an exemplar of purposefulness and control—whom he imagines is attracted to him. What he eventually finds out about her is something quite different in more than one way.
In Alix Ohlin’s story “Money, Geography, Youth,” Vanessa is the daughter of divorced parents, whose father was blindsided by the split. Now Vanessa is herself blindsided when she returns from a gap year in Ghana to find that her nineteen-year-old best friend, Kelsey, is living with her father and engaged to him. In contrast to Vanessa’s advantages of class and money and academic ability, Kelsey has none: she’s an upstart in the classic sense, happy at having “solved the riddle of her future” so neatly.
Pete Levine writes about a best-selling author of a successful detective series in his story “Charlevoix.” Neil has reliably produced formulaic but popular books that have been made into films. The upstart in this story is Mikey, the flighty adult son of Neil’s old college friend. Neil agrees to connect Mikey, an aspiring screenwriter, with his Hollywood agent. In the course of doing so, he learns that for all his lack of discipline, Mikey has some interesting ideas, far more original than his own. Neil questions his own talent and legitimacy and has to acknowledge the ways in which he’s borrowed and profited from the lives and ideas of others.
In “Pinterest and the Apocalpyse,” Sophie Beck explores the cultural phenomenon of “maker” and “fixer” subcultures through the lens of her sewing hobby. While people sewed for the practical purpose of making clothes 150 years ago, a maker today is perhaps a kind of retro upstart who, as Beck writes, doesn’t simply enjoy sewing or other crafts. She is actively, purposefully reclaiming her manual skills. The same goes for fixers, who may take apart and restore “a dead appliance back to life as a matter of principle, as rebellion.” The trends of making and fixing are reactions (mostly by professional people) to working in a service- and information-driven economy that separates labor from the fulfillment of physical needs. The irony isn’t lost on Beck, who says, “We are casting about for some sort of meaningful, earned skill. . . . Perhaps we are playing peasant—a society of Marie Antoinettes.”
Brandon Schrand’s fun little essay “Through the Glass Clearly” is an homage to the martini, describing it as the drink associated in popular culture with social standing. A first-generation college graduate from “dusty” Idaho cattle country, Schrand admits to being drawn to the martini “for what it represented at the level of idea, or symbol” and sees the drink as pointing to “a glamorous, silver-screen future where cocktail hour, Sinatra, sailing, world travel, and fine literature were the manifest accoutrements, if not birthrights, of cultured men and women.”
In our interview, Nathan Rabin discusses his path from a TV-worshiping kid who wanted to be Roger Ebert or Gene Siskel to his success as a pop-culture critic and head writer for The AV Club. And in this issue’s ominbus review of novels and memoirs that experiment with “writerly” conceits, reviewer Amy Day Wilkinson proves that formal adventurousness can turn a writer into a sort of upstart trying to achieve the status of novelist or memoirist via a nontraditional route.
Poet Sharon Dolin channels aphorisms written by the seventeenth-century Spanish writer Baltasar Gracián’s mischievous “advice poems.” His advice is unconventional, to say the least. Gossip, she warns, “battens / on another’s flaws to brilliantine / your raptor’s feathers.” To discourage pride, she describes a figure in laurel crowns and ribbons strutting “like Gogol’s liveried nose in gold /brocade & buckskin breeches.” While playfully imperious, Dolin’s poems shimmer with sharp, defiant wisdom. The female protagonists of Heather Derr-Smith’s poems are in constant danger, whether from abusive stepfathers, teenage boys seething with lust, or the ominous settings full of barbed wire and overflowing creeks. They struggle with their circumstances and sometimes manage to fight their way out. Haunting and lush, Derr-Smith’s poems chronicle the battle to bear, escape, and yet remember where one came from. Christopher Citro balances offbeat humor and quiet pathos in his poems, depicting characters who yearn for connection. Sometimes they manage a confident exterior (“I look like / one of those people who know what they’re doing. / I have no idea what I’m doing”), but inside they are lonely. Funny, poignant, and charming, Citro’s poems show how we navigate intimacy.
This issue’s Curio Cabinet concerns some of the lesser-known work of Alphonse Mucha, one of the most significant practitioners of Art Nouveau. For years an underfed artist, Mucha finally rose to fame in Paris in 1895 for his famed Gismonda poster of Sarah Berhardt, which made him an overnight success. Less famous than his poster work are the remarkable photographs he took at his studio at Rue de Val de Grâce. Though he didn’t think much of his own technical ability with photography, the images capture Mucha’s lush, theatrical style and show the curiosity-filled studio where he worked.
Kristine Somerville’s visual feature on outsider artists introduces us to some of the most singular art of the last one hundred years that never quite made it into the canon. The work of these perennial upstarts was too raw and irrational to be accepted. In their lives they were marginal figures who came from unexpected places—an asylum in Switzerland, a squalid one-room apartment in Chicago. Their art is found in the notebooks carried in a backpack of an indigent college dropout, the channelings of a spiritualist English housewife, and the late-life creations of menial laborers from the South. It was not until quite late in their careers or after their deaths that the discovery of the full scope of their works revealed their accomplishments.
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