Friday, February 26, 2010

Joyce Carol Oates: A Love Letter To Libraries In Longhand

Author Joyce Carol Oates.
"I try to write in the morning very intensely,
from 8:30 to 1 p.m...I hand write and then I type.

I don't have a word processor. I write slowly."
(By Landon Nordeman for Smithsonian Magazine.)

Contrary to Thomas Wolfe's dictum You Can't Go Home Again, in an article in the current issue of Smithsonian Magazine, "Joyce Carol Oates Goes Home Again," the eponymous author begs to differ. Joyce Carol Oates regales readers with a reverie on things changed and unchanged in the town of her birth, and reacquaints herself with the landmarks and buildings of a place that has continued to haunt her psyche and inform her prose.

Oates has a prolific pen, primarily publishing novels, but also short stories, poetry, plays, and articles. She has published well over 50 books. In the past few months alone, she has brought out two novels [A Fair Maiden (2010) and Little Bird Of Heaven (2009)]. Not bad for a 71-year-old, who published her first book way back in 1963. Compared to her, Charles Dickens was a punk, with only a measly 14 completed novels to his credit, though to be fair, his final curtain came at age 58.

Oates, like Dickens, has a strong sense of locale: "Writers, particularly novelists, are linked to place. It’s impossible to think of Charles Dickens and not to think of Dickens’ London; impossible to think of James Joyce and not to think of Joyce’s Dublin; and so with Thomas Hardy, D. H. Lawrence, Willa Cather, William Faulkner, Eudora Welty, Flannery O’Connor-each is inextricably linked to a region....We are all regionalists in our origins, however 'universal' our themes and characters, and without our cherished hometowns and childhood landscapes to nourish us, we would be like plants set in shallow soil. Our souls must take root-almost literally."

Oates, born in 1938, has, in the Smithsonian article, created a mesmerizing account of her early life in Lockport, a small town, in upstate New York. Among the places she discusses is the Lockport Public Library, which she fondly remembers visiting when she was seven or eight years old. For the young Joyce Carol Oates, the local public library was "A Garden of Earthly Delights."

Lockport Public Library, ca 1946.

Lockport Public Library, 2010.
(By Landon Nordeman For Smithsonian Magazine.)

She was first taken to the public library by her grandmother in the mid-1940's. This library pilgrimage was for her a "vivid and hallucinatory dream," not unlike her experiences at in the local movie house, aptly named The Palace Theatre. "In the shadowy opulence of the Palace, as in an unpredictably unfolding dream, I fell under the spell of movies, as I’d fallen under the spell of books a few years earlier."

Spellbound In Darkness: The Palace Theater.
(Landon Nordeman For Smithsonian Magazine.)

She remembers the library as "a beautiful building like no other I've seen close up." The library itself was a Great Depression-era WPA project that "transformed" the city. In precise detail, drawing on the memories of a child, now filtered through some 60 years of life, she rhapsodizes that the structure of the library "has something of the look of a Greek temple; not only is its architecture distinctive, with elegantly ascending steps, a portico and four columns, a facade with six large, rounded, latticed windows and, on top, a kind of spire, but the building is set back from the street behind a wrought-iron fence with a gate, amid a very green jewel-like lawn."

As opposed to the somewhat off-putting upstairs portion of the library for the "grown-ups," she reverently describes the more accessible downstairs "library for children" as a sensuous olfactory experience: a " cheery, brightly lit space... [with] an inexpressible smell of floor polish, library paste, books-that particular library smell that conflates, in my memory, with the classroom smell of floor polish, chalk dust, books so deeply imprinted in my memory. For even as a young child I was a lover of books and of the spaces in which, as indeed in a sacred temple, books might safely reside."

Proud Card-Carrying Library Patron:
Budding Author, Around Age 10.
(Courtesy Joyce Carol Oates.

She describes her library as a sacrosanct temple devoted to the higher religion of the printed word. She recalls the children's area as a visual feast: "what is most striking... are the shelves and shelves of books-bookcases lining the walls-books with brightly colored spines-astonishing to a little girl whose family lives in a farmhouse in the country where books are almost wholly unknown. That these books are available for children-for a child like me-all these books!-leaves me dazed, dazzled." She recalls the experience tactilely: there was "no greater happiness than to make my way along the seemingly infinite shelves of books,... drawing my forefinger across the spines." On this first visit, she has a divine revelation, "a special surprise," when she is told that she can "'withdraw' books from this library," all with the simple passport of a library card, through "some magical provision" by her grandmother, Mrs. Blanche Woodside, who met the simple qualification of Lockport residency.

This first transcendent experience is why the local library has become "an illumination in my life." She goes on in delirious, deliberately dreamlike terms: "In that dimension of the soul in which time is collapsed and the past is contemporaneous with the present" the library setting remains for her an epiphany, especially as she grew up in a hardscrabble, rural community that was "lacking a common cultural or aesthetic tradition." And, coming on the heels of the Great Depression, which instilled in her a strong work ethic, "I was mesmerized by books and by what might be called 'the life of the mind': the life that was not manual labor, or housework, but seemed in its specialness to transcend these activities." As a self-described "farm girl," she naturally had her "farm chores," but she diligently included reading in her "alone" activities, when she wasn't exploring "the fields, woods and creek side," or otherwise sowing her wild oats.

"Locks, Looking East, Lockport, N.Y." (ca late 1940's).
[Courtesy Frank E. Sadowski Jr., The Erie Canal (Website).]

For Oates and other residents who eventually moved elsewhere, the Erie Canal location of Lockport became a seminal memory "so deep-set in what appears to be solid rock ... that [it] resurfaces in dreams. Where you find yourself in your most haunting dreams. These may be dreams of luminous beauty, or they may be nightmares-but they are the dreams most embedded in memory, thus encoded deep in the brain: the first memories to be retained and the last memories to be surrendered."

"Wonderland," By Dallas Piotrowski.
Giclée Print, 2004.

Celestial Timepiece:
A Joyce Carol Oates Home Page.)

But her childhood is not a simplistic series of rosy recollections for Oates: "Lockport, well into the present, suggests a more innocent time imagined by Thornton Wilder or Edward Hopper, appropriated now by movie director David Lynch: the slightly sinister, surreal yet disarmingly 'normal'-seeming atmosphere of a quintessential American town trapped in a sort of spell or enchantment." The area not far from Lockport nurtured "the area’s most 'known' resident...Timothy McVeigh, our homegrown terrorist/mass-murderer."

Oates profiled McVeigh for a piece in the New Yorker in 1995: "Like me, McVeigh grew up in the countryside beyond Lockport....Like me, he would have been identified as 'from the country' and very likely, like me, he was made to feel, and may have exalted in feeling, marginal, invisible. He may have felt powerless, as a boy. He may have been watchful, a fantasist. He may have told himself, Wait! Your turn will come." Not surprisingly, her just-published novel, Little Bird of Heaven, is "set in a ficticious [sic] upstate New York town that bears a strong resemblance to the Lockport of her childhood."

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