5 Favourites: American Literature

The Poetry of Emily Dickinson (1830-86)

Emily Dickinson

‘Hope is the thing with feathers —
That perches in the soul —
And sings the tune without the words —
And never stops — at all —’

The American… undiscovered
The Mother of American poetry to Walt Whitman’s Father, Dickinson left over 1,500 distinctive, dense and dash-laden poems that only found fame after her death.

Despite living in isolation, Dickinson’s poetic voice is not only introspective but inquisitive, questioning the boundaries of life, death and everything in-between, from marriage to religion to Mother Nature. With a penchant for capitalisation and poetic discord, Dickinson has both an anxious desire to discover the unknowable secrets within, as in ‘I felt a Funeral, in my Brain’, and ‘After great pain, a formal feeling comes —’, and, in ‘A Bird came down the Walk —’ and ‘A narrow Fellow in the Grass’, a curious eye to cast outwards on the usually-unnoticed workings of the natural world, with lines of poetry only paralleled by the wonder of the wildlife it captures. As such, Dickinson’s writing finds a unique freedom in the confinement of poetic form, femininity in the nineteenth-century, and her self-inflicted reclusiveness.

Other works ‘There’s a certain Slant of light’ and ‘Those – dying then’ for death and divinity in the same breath, ‘Title divine – is mine!’ and ‘They shut me up in Prose —’ for some contextually controversial views on courtship, that synesthetic ‘Blue — uncertain— stumbling Buzz’ in ‘I heard a Fly buzz — when I died —’, and ‘Because I could not stop for Death —’ for possibly the most inspired use of iambic rhythm in the poetic canon.

The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1892)The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

‘The faint figure behind seemed to shake the pattern, just as if she wanted to get out.’

The American… locked in
The Yellow Wallpaper is less about wallpaper and more about walls – of both the bricks-and-mortar and symbolic kind.

A semi-autobiographical short story about a woman forced to lay on her back and… do absolutely nothing. Known as the ‘rest cure’, this controversial remedy was often recommended for women suffering from ‘hysteria’, a term used to describe ‘female’ depression. Unsurprisingly, isolation and inactivity are not an antidote to depression, but instead feed and fester it, and its real effect, rather than a doctors’ theories, is found in Gilman’s evocative account. The narrative style reads like the pattern of the eponymous wallpaper: the flourishes of the pattern camouflage the creeping unease of the narrative, until the unnamed narrator’s interiority escapes and plasters itself over the walls in place of the repulsive wallpaper. Yet, as women under the rest cure, the act of writing is an act of rebellion for both Gilman and her anonymous narrator.

Other works for women writers in America, see Alice Walker’s The Colour Purple for race and womanhood, Sylvia Plath’s poetry and partly-autobiographical The Bell Jar for a woman’s experience of depression, and Toni Morrison’s Beloved for women and the unbreakable maternal bond.

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1925)

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

‘So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.’

The American… dreamer
A cliché but a classic, The Great Gatsby is the Jazz Age archetype of the dream-to-disillusionment truth of a truly American ideology.

And the truth is that Gatsby isn’t that Great. Fitzgerald’s prose is like Gatsby’s parties: the decadence, the drink, and the dancing disguise the longing, loss and loneliness underneath all the glitter and gold as Fitzgerald’s lyrical poetry masks the prosaic reality of the American Dream. An American classic that includes some of the greatest imagery of its age, from the Valley of the Ashes to the Eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg to the green light at the end of Gatsby’s adored, Daisy’s, dock, the empty symbolism of The Great Gatsby is as, if not more, meaningful – or meaningless – in our modern, material reality as it was in the Roaring Twenties, permeating pop-culture with a reminder of how hollow and heartless the pursuit of American ideals of love, life and wealth can be.

Other works from the Great Depression to eighties-era yuppies, the migrant workers George and Lennie in John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men and Bret Easton Ellis’s monster-of-a-man in American Psycho highlight how all walks of life have dreamed the American Dream and fallen from its great heights.

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates (2015)

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

‘…racism is a visceral experience […] it dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscle, extracts organs, cracks bones, breaks teeth […] [and] all land, with great violence, upon the body.’

The American…  advocate
A heartbreakingly honest work laying bare the fearful truth of racism in the USA not as a philosophy to be studied, but as a physical assault on the black body.

History is written by the victors, but the history of race in America is often written by the villains, or at least those, willingly or unknowingly, on their side. Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me is a visceral, vital voice in the narrative of black America made all the more poignant because it’s written as a passionate epistle to his son. Like his experience, Coates’s writing is as powerful as it is exposed, defiant as it is fearful, and brutal as it is beautiful; it’s an account unflinching but invaluable to our understanding of lives we haven’t lived. And that’s the key: this is the ‘stars and strife’ story of American history, and it’s a story that we have to hear from the hearts of those who’ve lived it first hand.

Other works The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin, the blazing, groundbreaking 1963 work that influenced Between the World and Me, Maya Angelou’s autobiographical I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and poetic rebellion in ‘Still I Rise’, and Coates himself on HBO’s Confederate, and why Civil War success for the South is ‘an ugly truth that black Americans are forced to live every day‘.

Hamilton: An American Musical by Lin-Manuel Miranda (2015)

Hamilton by Lin-Manuel Miranda

‘If I throw away my shot, is this how you’ll remember me?
What if this bullet is my legacy?
Legacy. What is a legacy?
It’s planting seeds in a garden you never get to see.’

The American… descendant
The ultimate American musical written by an American with immigrant heritage about America then told by America now, focussing on another American immigrant, Alexander Hamilton, who wrote his way into American history as one of its Founding Fathers.

Telling history through rap, hip-hop, and R&B, Miranda makes America’s past matter through music that’s contemporary and a cast-of-colour who play the mostly white political players of the late-18th century. With many characters and songs taking their cue from the founding American writers of the Constitution and the Federalist Papers, Hamilton fuses the past, the present, and the future – the finale asks, ‘Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story?’ – into a harmonious whole with a heart that beats and breaks and skips and aches. Hamilton tells not only a political history but a private one, centring on the opposing views of Hamilton and his rival, Aaron Burr (Sir): one waits for it, the other goes for it; one stands for nothing, the other rises up; one dies, the other survives, but pays for it.

Other works Miranda is a theatre-admirer as well as a theatre-maker, and his varied musical influences – classical and contemporary – are found throughout Hamilton, so see the Genius annotations and analysis, authorised and added to by Miranda himself, to find them all.

5 Favourites: ‘Classics’ Reimagined for the ‘Teen Age’

Clueless (1995)

Clueless 1995

‘She was proved to have been universally mistaken.’

‘I was just totally clueless.’

The Classic… Austen’s classic comedy-of-manners, makeovers, marriages and match-making, Emma (1815)

…Reclassified meddling misses Emma Woodhouse and Cher Horowitz both have everyone else’s marital affairs on their minds – so much so that they forget the fancies and affections of their own hearts. The satirical wit of Austen’s slightly spoiled society lady finds a second home in all-American high-schooler Cher, and the high school hierarchy is lampooned with the same commentary on class, society, and the characteristics of the sexes as Emma’s English high society. The meddlesome young women both find their way to a handsome suitor who’s been close to their hearts all along, but Cher’s love is sealed with a make-out, not a marriage. Ugh, as if.

Romeo + Juliet (1996)

Romeo + Juliet 1996‘…To smooth that rough touch with a tender kiss.’

”Cos I’m kissing you…’

The Classic… Shakespeare’s story of ‘star cross’d lovers’ and ancestral strife, Romeo and Juliet (c.1595)

…Reclassified Baz Luhrmann’s Verona-Beach-and-revolvers reimagining of Romeo and Juliet is by no means the best cinematic version of the unlucky lovers, but it is a trailblazing translation of the traditional to the contemporary. While Roger Ebert egregiously branded it a movie for the ‘MTV’ generation – ‘Young Hearts’ really do ‘Run Free’ in the modern music – the Bard still gets top billing as Luhrmann makes use of the original language, although, with the exception of Pete Postlethwaite’s Laurence, it’s largely missing the metrical poetry of the play. Yet, Romeo + Juliet made stars of DiCaprio and Danes, its ‘star cross’d lovers’, and, to a lesser extent, Shakespeare, introducing his work to a fresh – and very profitable – demographic.

Rent (1996)Rent 1996

‘…if you wouldn’t mind lighting my candle.’

‘Oh, won’t you light the candle?’

The Classic… Puccini’s heartbreaking opera about ailing bohemians in nineteenth-century Paris, La Bohème (1895)

…Reclassified Set almost one-hundred sets of ‘five-hundred twenty-five thousand six-hundred minutes’ later than its source in New York’s Alphabet City, Jonathan Larson’s musical is full of allusions to La Bohème. Far from just modernising Rodolfo and Marcello to Roger and Mark and referencing ‘Musetta’s Waltz’, the musical transforms the artists’ outdated wasting disease into a frighteningly modern one – AIDS. Whilst the protagonists aren’t all teenagers, Rent is, arguably, a teenage retelling, reflecting the angst and appealing to the anarchy of a marginalised youth – particularly the LGBTQ+ community – who feel they’ve been failed by a culture that couldn’t care less about them. Larson’s La Bohème is bold and heartbreaking, but it’s also wholly believable.

10 Things I Hate About You (1999)

10 Things I Hate About You 1999

‘Asses are made to bear, and so are you.’

‘I guess in this society, being male and an asshole makes you worthy of our time.’

The Classic… Shakespeare’s romantic comedy with his most complicated and unromantic couple, The Taming of the Shrew (c.1590-4)

…Reclassified Katherina, with her cutting taunts and ‘scolding tongue’, is perhaps Shakespeare’s most proto-feminist creation, and so it’s no surprise her modern counterpart features in one of the more feminist teen films of the time. Along with Heath Ledger as a long-haired Petruchio, 10 Things I Hate About You is a teen-romcom-Shakespearean-comedy crossover with a kickass soundtrack. A roller-coaster of those feelings that come with falling in love, beating bullies and playing parley with over-protective parents, the film does as Shakespeare did, just with fewer words and wicked fashion, and explores that universal experience of what to do when we realise we don’t hate the one we love, not even close, not even a little bit, not even at all.

Easy A (2010)Easy A 2010

‘On the breast of her gown, in fine red cloth, surrounded with an elaborate embroidery and fantastic flourishes of gold thread, appeared the letter A.’

‘Perhaps you should embroider a red A on your wardrobe, you abominable tramp.’

The Classic… Nathaniel Hawthorne’s canonised scripture on sexual shame in Puritan-age America, The Scarlet Letter (1850)

…Reclassified Easy A is easily the most accessible of all the ‘classic’ adaptations: it’s the most meta – the kids are studying The Scarlet Letter and Emma Stone even summarises it for us early in the movie – the most comedic, and the most malleable in its treatment of the source material, but it still makes many of the same remarks about society’s response to women who have sex – which is worrying, when you look at the release dates. Protagonist Olive faces many of the same prejudices as Hester Prynne as she tries to fight her way through the high school rumour mill, just as the Puritan townsfolk pass judgement on Hester, but ultimately their kindhearted and courageous character prevails. Although, tragically, only one gets to ride off on a lawnmower.

See this ace post, ‘Classic Lit and Teen Flicks: Why it Works’, for a more in-depth analysis on what makes these adaptations work.

5 Favourites: Films from Studio-Era Classical Hollywood Cinema

Rebecca (1940) rebecca-blog

Last night, I dreamt I went to Manderley again…’

Starring Laurence Olivier as the charming but troublesome leading man, Maxim de Winter, Joan Fontaine as the meek, mild and unnamed second Mrs de Winter, Judith Anderson as the scene-stealing, spine-tingling, ever-faithful servant Mrs Danvers, and more monograms than you can imagine.

The Story in 6 Words sinister slow-burn about absent ex-wife
(ex-wife is one word, right?!)

3 Reasons to See 
The unflinchingly faithful adaptation from Daphne du Maurier’s novel, especially the opening monologue as we glide up through the grounds of Manderley, all the ways the absent Rebecca is ever-present, from passing mentions to burning monograms, and Anderson’s performance as the faithful-to-a-fault, devoted Mrs Danvers who haunts our heroine like a vengeful shadow.

It’s a Wonderful Life wonderful-life-blog(1946)

‘Remember, George: no man is a failure who has friends.’

Starring James Stewart as suicidal, generous softy George, Donna Reed as his wonderful, rallying wife Mary, Lionel Barrymore as the villainous banker of the piece, Mr Potter, and Henry Travers as Clarence Odbody, Angel, 2nd Class, eager to earn his wings.

The Story in 6 Words what life is like without you

3 Reasons to See
The debt that director Capra owes to Dickens’s A Christmas Carol and its many adaptations for the audience’s willing suspension-of-disbelief when an old, white – whether ghostly or angelic – man materialises to show the hero the error of his ways, George’s poignant ‘show me the way‘ prayer for hope amidst the hustle and bustle of the bar that pulls us in both literally with a soft zoom and figuratively with such depth of feeling, and its equally heart-wrenching-and-warming quality.

Sunset Boulevard (1950)sunset-blog

‘I am big… it’s the pictures that got small!’

Starring William Holden as fall-guy Joe Gillis, Gloria Swanson as faded star and fantasist Norma Desmond, Erich von Stroheim as her committed employee Max, and so many silent film stars out of retirement you’ll be surprised when there’s sound.

The Story in 6 Words meta-cinematic masterpiece about damaging Hollywood stardom

3 Reasons to See
A whole host of real silent film stars in cameo roles, among them Cecil B. DeMille, Hedda Hopper and Buster Keaton, Swanson’s stellar performance, especially her monologue as she descends like a deranged madman down the staircase in the closing scene, and the subtle subversion of gender stereotypes and generic tropes in the central relationship.

singin-blogSingin’ in the Rain (1952)

‘She can’t act, she can’t sing, she can’t dance. A triple threat.’

Starring co-director Gene Kelly as all-acting, all-singin’, all-dancing Don Lockwood, Debbie Reynolds as chorus girl Kathy, Jean Hagan as the ‘triple threat’ having trouble transitioning to talkies, Donald O’Connor as sidekick clown Cosmo Brown, and Moses (Supposes).

The Story in 6 Words ultimate movie musical spoofs talkies’ transition

3 Reasons to See
O’Connor’s mesmerising, ridiculously impressive ‘Make ‘Em Laugh’ routine, the ‘Broadway Melody’ music and dance divertissement starring a seductive, black-bobbed Cyd Charisse, and all the knowing – and nail-bitingly funny – nods to the mammoth task of transitioning from silent films to talkies, from secret dubbing to hiding microphones in bushes.

vertigo-blogVertigo (1958)

‘One final thing I have to do… and then I’ll be free of the past.’

Starring James Stewart as Scottie, a flawed professional with a phobic predisposition, Kim Novak as his – and Hitchcock’s – icy blonde(s), Barbara Bel Geddes as Midge, Scottie’s long-suffering friend, and Hitchcock’s trumpet case-carrying cameo.

 The Story in 6 Words obsessive acrophobe follows blonde too far

3 Reasons to See
The disorientating dolly zoom (spoilers!), infamously first used in this film to capture the feeling of vertigo, the Master of Suspense mastering the suspenseful spiral narrative by reflecting the themes – obsession, possession, and regression – in the film’s opening and closing scenes, and the cool, calculated composition of everything from shot composition to costume to colour, particularly the use of complimentary colours red and green in the film’s palette.