Archive for publishing

Edna Gertrude Beasley

This post from five years ago has been a regular favourite on basil.CA in terms of “hits.” That means that my readers and I are in tune with the universe, perhaps.

GertrudeBeasley

“It is perfectly clear to me that life is not worth living, but it is also equally clear that life is worth talking about.” – EGB

I learned of the delightfully named Edna Gertrude Beasley while reading A Second Mencken Chrestomathy. Mencken reviews Beasley’s memoir, “My First Thirty Years,” in a chapter called “A Texas Schoolma’am,” written in 1926:

This book, I suspect, comes out with a Paris imprint because no American publisher would risk printing it. I offer the very first paragraph as a specimen of its manner:

‘Thirty years ago I lay in the womb of a woman, conceived in an act of rape, being carried through the pre-natal period by an unwilling and rebellious mother, finally bursting forth only to be tormented in a family whose members I despised or pitied, and brought into association with people whom I should never have chosen. Sometimes I wish that, as I lay in the womb, a pink soft embryo, I had somehow thought, breathed or moved and wrought destruction to the woman who bore me, and her eight miserable children who preceded me, and the four round-faced mediocrities who came after me, and her husband, a monstrously cruel, Christ-like and handsome man with an animal’s appetite for begetting children.’

This is freely speaking, surely, but only a Comstock, reading it, would mistake it for an attempt at pornography. There is, in fact, not the slightest sign of conscious naughtiness in the book; it is the profoundly serious and even indignant story of a none too intelligent woman lifted out of the lowest levels of the Caucasian race by her own desperate efforts, and now moved to ease her fatigue by telling how she did it. …

La Beasley, it appears, came into the world on the Texas steppes, the ninth child of migratory and low-down parents. Her father was an unsuccessful farmer who practiced blacksmithing on the side. During her first half dozen years the family moved three or four times. Always prosperity was beckoning in the next township, the next county. Children were born at every stop, and as the household increased it gradually disintegrated. Finally, the mother heaved the father out, took her brood to Abilene, and there set up a boarding-house. The sons quickly drifted away; one of the daughters became a lady of joy; the others struggled pathetically with piddling jobs. Gertrude was the flower of the flock. She worked her way through a preposterous ‘Christian College,’ got a third-rate teacher’s certificate, and took a rural school. The county parents liked her; she kept their barbarous progeny in order, often by beating them. After a while she took other examinations, and was transferred to better schools. In the end, she went to Chicago, and there tackled pedagogy on a still higher level. For all I know, she may be teaching in that great city yet.

The tone of Mencken’s review is thoroughly, unusually admiring. He respects her unblurred, dyspeptic view: “The author has emancipated herself from her native wallow, but she does not view it with superior sniffs. Instead, she frankly takes us back to it, and tells us all she knows about its fauna, simply and honestly. There is frequent indignation in her chronicle, but never any derision. Her story interests her immensely, and she is obviously convinced that it should be interesting to others. I think she is right.”

One wishes, at any rate, that Mencken’s guess regarding Beasley’s then-current whereabouts had been the case. She did not end up teaching in Chicago.

In fact, as Mary Ellen Specht puts it in her excellent piece “The Disappearance of Gertrude Beasley, “‘My First Thirty Years’ ends with Beasley sailing off to Japan, where she writes for ‘National Geographic’ and travels to places like China and Russia before publishing her autobiography and disappearing for good,” it seemed, at the age of 35.

In 2008 the mystery of Beasley’s disappearance was solved. Specht writes:

Edna Gertrude Beasley … was institutionalized 10 days after her ship landed in New York. She lived out her last 27 years in gulag conditions, until her death from pancreatic cancer in 1955. She was 63.

The [author’s] grandniece and Beasley “friends” and family have since located her grave, marked only by a number, and erected a headstone there. While Beasley’s body may be at peace, her story isn’t. New York State will not release details of her commitment hearing, even to family.  The question remains: How did she end up there? The family has found a dictation from one of Gertrude’s brothers claiming she was committed by William Randolph Hearst, for whom she briefly worked as a journalist, though the brother claimed “she was no more crazy than you or I.” My mother found no mention of Beasley in the Hearst papers at the University of California at Berkeley.

Maybe she *was* crazy. The letter she sent to the U.S. State Department from the ship is full of grandiose suspicions regarding “a conspiracy against myself.” Beasley also claims to be “completing a work which I believe to be one of the most significant of its sort ever written.” She accuses British police and “certain people in Texas” of trying to stop her. She implies that once she disembarks from the steamer, her life will be in peril. She was never heard from again. My mother says, “Is it paranoia if they’re really out to get you?”

Gertrude Beasley wrote about the hardships of her first 30 years, but we can’t begin to imagine what her last 30 must have been like.

In 2011 Beasley’s memoir was re-issued as a paperback; you can download it onto your Kindle, too. (Amazon has a sizeable selection of the text available as a “preview.” Google Books has these excerpts.) The writing is utterly vivid and distilled. No noun seems not needed in this ardent narration of an American hell. The courage and the craft that our author had … inspires. She reminds me of very few writers of my generation – perhaps only Lydia Lunch and Robin Plan, who were not, thank god, thrown into the “gulag” midway through the journey of their lives.

Review

The New York Review of Books has always been very generous in providing current and past articles online. In celebration of the publication’s 50th anniversary its editors are “digging into the magazine’s archives and featuring one article from each year of publication.” They start with 1972 – 1974:

  • Robert Wall’s “Special Agent for the FBI” will remind us that the current United States President’s complaints against that agency are righteous as well as self-serving. (Hard sentence to write.)
  • Peter Singer’s essay on “Animal Liberation” helped launched a movement that truly enlightened “Western Culture.” (Hard to swallow how mundane it was for us to gratuitously, lazily cause pain to animals.)
  • And Gore Vidal reviews Robert Caro’s annihilation of Robert Moses, who wanted to run a highway through Manhattan’s Washington Square Park (“The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York“). (A titan acclaiming a colossus gutting a Goliath.)

I happily spend days reading the NY Review, which lost its fabled editor and co-founder, Robert Silvers, last year but which has remained “irreplaceable” (a cliché, I realize, but it is completely the case).

Safekeeping

In this amusing piece on book “acknowledgments,” New York Times writer Jennifer Senior includes this bit of real wisdom:

Family members often make the best editors, because they can speak most bluntly to authors, and they have the next-highest stakes. Guess who has to live with you if your book gets savaged?

An editor needs to protect his or her author from ignominy.

“Writer navigates tech’s male culture in Seattle with acerbic wit”

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My friend and Ellavon alum Kristi Coulter made the cover of today’s Seattle Times. I can’t remember ever feeling so great witnessing a friend’s growing fame and success.

I have spent the entirety of my adulthood as a professional editor, and can’t even count how many published writers I have worked with. It’s got to be at least a thousand. Kristi is probably the best pure writer of them all. (Maybe tied with Robin Plan, a very different writer!)

(Her FB page is a total gas.)

I don’t even like writing the word ‘plagiarism’

As a communications professor, I have to attend to the possibility that some students will use words that are not their own. I believe I can usually tell when that happens – a change in diction jumps out at me after a lifetime of writing, editing and publishing – but this might not be the case.

This recent plagiarism scandal is especially puzzling because Jill Biokosky is herself an editor at an esteemed publisher as well as a poet and memoirist. She knows the rules.

Also puzzling to me is Biokosky’s non-apology:

[This reviewer] has extracted a few ancillary and limited phrases from my 222-page memoir that inadvertently include fragments of prior common biographical sources and tropes after a multiyear writing process. This should not distract from the thesis of this book, which derives from my own life, my experiences and observations. I will, of course, correct any errors that are found for future editions of the book.

Perhaps the ultimate puzzlement, to me, is that here is a poet who could not take care to recognize her own words, or to see which ones were not her own. Even I would go, “Hey, that doesn’t sound like me!” when going through my own work. I remember breathing every word, or that I could.

Saying something nice

This New York Times feature on former Commentary magazine editor Norman Podhoretz reminded me of much I loathed this man back in my English Major undergraduate days at the University of Buffalo. In his essay “The Know-Nothing Bohemians,” Podhoretz had written of my literary heroes Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg that their “worship of primitivism and spontaneity is more than a cover for hostility to intelligence; it arises from a pathetic poverty of feeling as well.”

Indeed, he wrote, they and their friends in the so-called Beat Generation wished to “kill the intellectuals who can talk coherently, kill the people who can sit still for five minutes at a time, kill those incomprehensible characters who are capable of getting seriously involved with a woman, a job, a cause.” What a prick.

I was surprised – dismayed, really – at how the years had changed my opinion of this now very old man. I was a long-time professional editor looking at him as an editor, not a young writer looking at him as some literary critic. Here was a man who attracted a very large roster of superb authors to his magazine. It is hard for me to name an equal from his generation. As an editor with most of his career as one behind him, I now find his achievement astonishing.

My comment for the New York Times: “Norman Podhoretz was a very fine editor indeed if judged by the cast of writers he attracted to the pages of Commentary. It seems even by his own accounting, though, that he was far less successful as a friend.” This measured tone might have nauseated me in my youth.

A new publication from Miles Basil, MD

Weight Loss and Abdominal Pain Caused by Pancreatic Squamous Cell Carcinoma.”

The closing sentences are close to poetry. Really.