By David Skinner
We expect writers to have problems. Alcoholism, divorce, depression, these make sense to us as the price an artist pays for cultivating his or her talent. A story to explain the storyteller.
But there are other kinds of writers. Not a few take Flaubert’s advice to live like a bourgeois. They achieve an orderly existence centered, perhaps more completely, on the work of writing.
Eudora Welty was the daughter of a prosperous insurance company executive. She went to Columbia University to study business, in case writing didn’t work out. After launching her literary career, she moved home and lived very simply. Her inspiration, Danny Heitman explains, did not come in a bottle. Welty sought it in the world around her, listening and attending to it as carefully as she could.
Bernard Malamud also lived the quiet life, but, with a wife and children to support, he needed a day job. He found one as a college instructor, setting aside three days a week to work on his fiction. And it was work. As Mark Athitakis shows, Malamud might have called himself a re-writer, for all the drafts he marked up, typed out, and marked up again.
Language need not be literary to be interesting, of course, as Ammon Shea reminds us in his report on the Corpus of Historical American English. This enormous database covers the growth of our language from 1810 to 2009, helping us to learn more about the peculiar ways of American usage.
One’s own language, however, should always be telling, Hannah Arendt believed. In her report on the trial of Adolf Eichmann, who oversaw the transportation system that delivered millions of Jews to their deaths, Arendt argued that the defendant’s use of stock phrases revealed a mind untroubled by the moral effort of independent thought. Clichés were one aspect of “the banality of evil,” Arendt’s famous coinage, which Kathleen B. Jones breaks down for us.
Language being a favorite subject of mine, I can always riff on it, but there are other pressing matters. In this issue, Anna Maria Gillis explores the life-or-death history of the 1918 influenza outbreak and what lessons it teaches about fighting pandemics. Steve Moyer travels to Pennsylvania and digs for answers on who the first Americans were. And Mark Cheathem explores the life and history of a slave named Hannah, who memorialized Andrew Jackson as a kindly master while leaving many unanswered questions behind.