The Stories We Hide

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The Story

Everyone has secrets they want to keep.
Keeping secrets is harder when you live in a small town.
Small towns are the original spots where everyone knows your name.  They also know your parents, your siblings, and whether you went to reform school or college.  But they have secrets they want to keep too. Sometimes, this can make small-town society seem like an insulated conspiracy of silence.
Until curiosity or a stranger shows up, that is.
This is the premise of Annie Barrows’s 2015 novel, The Truth According to Us. Set in the fictional town of Macedonia, West Virginia in 1938, The Truth According to Us is almost an experiment in human psychology.  What happens when a couple of curious souls look at decades of mythology and lies?
One mind belongs to Layla Beck, the WPA writer commissioned to transcribe Macedonia’s history; the other to twelve-year-old Willa Romeyn. Presented with conflicting reports, Layla has to decide what deserves to see print, the truth or a glossed over fiction. Was the town’s founder a hero or tyrant? Was their legendary preacher a charismatic saint or sexual predator?  Layla’s present and future become tied up with Macedonia’s history.  To Willa, it’s the way to demystify her family’s past.
Where does Father go when he vanishes for weeks at a time? Why does he leave his kids with Aunt Jottie?  Why doesn’t Aunt Jottie have a family and kids of her own?  At the age of twelve, Willa’s beginning to notice how the people she loves the most avoid certain topics of conversation.  In fact, sometimes they lie.  With the Macedonian virtue of ferocious devotion, Willa decides to unearth the facts and learns that truth can come at a terrible cost, even while it sets you free.

The Truth Behind the Story

On a side-note, The Truth According to Us highlights an obscure bit of history, The Federal Writers Project. I know the notion of a federal program subsidizing writers may give some people indigestion, but it was a good idea at the time.  For meager wages, writers documented histories of places and individuals that usually wouldn’t get covered: guides were written about every state in the union, and the oral histories of former slaves were transcribed. Valuable information that would have been lost altogether was saved by this work, and it trained more than a few writers that went on to literary glory including Conrad Aiken, Richard Wright, Zora Neale Hurston and John Steinbeck. Today, our culture still enjoys the benefits of what that agency did more than eighty years ago. Not bad for a short-term, New-Deal program.
But this is background.  The Truth According to Us is what happens when a fresh light is shed on a mythology created by resentment and shame. Passions heat up faster than the dog days of summer. It’s perfect for an August read.

The Obsessive Story of the Obsessed Bronte

My obsessions don’t make me a better person.  They eat up too much time and energy and can turn me into an absolute bore but, they are part of me.  I find an interesting subject and suddenly I have to know everything about it.  That’s the mark of an obsessive and, as I say, it has its downfalls.  But sometimes that drive yields obscure treasures.
Obsession is one reason I love Daphne Du Maurier’s stories. Two of her most famous works, (Rebecca and My Cousin, Rachel) are about the mania of being haunted by a subject.  And, according to at least one biography, the Du Maurier had a literary obsession that I share: the Bronte family. Trust me, this makes sense.
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The Unforgettable Bronte Siblings

The Bronte sisters are a fascinating subject, whether you are studying literature or history. Three adult sisters, with minimal resources, strove to support themselves as writers, when the publishing world of publishing was pretty much closed to women. The sisters created poems and novels that often dealt with obsession. The novels become best-sellers and then literary classics, studied and loved ever since.  The Bronte girls all attained incredible literary success but Ms. Du Maurier didn’t want to write about them.  Instead, she chose to write about the great failure of this talented family: their brother, Patrick Branwell Bronte.  Story-wise, this makes sense too.
The Infernal World of Branwell Bronte is a look at the then-forgotten brother of three literary geniuses (genii?) and figure out why he failed. By all accounts, it should have been the other way around. Young Branwell, with his imagination and brains, led his sisters in games of imaginary world-building,  He should have been the Bronte writer the world remembers.  With his superior education and opportunities, he should have, at least, been able to support himself. Instead, Branwell ruined every chance that he got and lived off his father or his sisters.  In the end, Branwell’s talent and gifts were outweighed by his flaws: an overwhelming ego, little self-discipline, and a destructive addiction to alcohol. Still, he’s an interesting failure and a brilliant psychological study, perfect for Du Maurier’s mind.
Perhaps Branwell’s disastrous luck was contagious because The Infernal World of Branwell Bronte did not sell well, even though it was written by a popular author. After publication, it was rarely read.  But, like Branwell, if his biography is a failure, it’s an interesting one.  It’s the story of a man who had a gifted but uncontrollable mind.  In other words, it’s one obsessive writing about another.

Betrayed by Your Closest Friend

The Swans

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It’s the story literary freaks, pop culture geeks and gossip mavens all know. The story of a covey of fascinating young women who were known for being beautiful; graceful as swans. Beauty made them famous and envied and rich but it didn’t make them happy, Instead, Beauty made them insecure and lonely.  They wanted friends who’d value them instead of their looks or the powerful men they had married. Then one day, this flock of sad, lovely, women befriended an unusual man,  An odd, little man, who liked but didn’t lust after them. A clever talker of a man who cheered them up with the juicy gossip, whenever they were blue.  The strange storyteller listened to each woman when she talked. and told each woman he adored her.  And, because he was gay and understanding and fun, the women showered him with gifts and friendship.  They even shared their deepest secrets with him.
Secrets he wrote down.

The Story

This is the setup for The Swans of Fifth Avenue, the story of a fascinating literary scandal.  It stars some of the original American taste-makers of the mid-20th century like Babe Paley, and Slim Keith, and Truman Capote, the man they befriended. When he was a young, semi-successful writer, these women and many of their friends each found Capote to be a kindred spirit. He made them laugh and praised not only their faces and forms (referring to them collectively as “swans”) but their intelligence, taste, and souls.  In turn, they supported him during the lean years and celebrated with him as they all found success.  Then, when he was desperate for one more book, he published their nastiest secrets with just enough fiction on top to turn their humiliating memories into a guessing game for the reading public.  At least one woman included in the story killed herself the day that she got a printed copy. The rest of the women ended the friendship.   And was Capote surprised by their reaction?
Oddly enough, he was.

The Summary

In one sense, The Swans of Fifth Avenue tells the story of how friendship is made and destroyed.  It captures a bit of America in the center of the 20th century.  Like Capote’s masterpiece, In Cold Blood, Swans is an amalgamation of research and imagination now known as the “non-fiction novel” But mostly, it’s an old-fashioned, gossipy fun book to read, perfect for the summer.
 
Capote, I think, would have loved being the star of this story. His swans, I believe, would not.
 

 

Because Everybody Loves a Good Fight

A lot of people spent the last eight Sunday Nights watching Ryan Murphy’s TV series, Feud, and I think I know why.  First, it was a quality product: well-written, acted, edited and produced. It was also an intriguing story about well-known people in a fascinating industry.  My mom, with her collection of books on the Golden Age of Hollywood, would have raved about this series, either praising or vilifying it to High Heaven.  But, mostly I think the title explained why people tuned in Sunday after Sunday and can’t wait for the next season: everyone loves to watch a good fight, and the nastier it gets, the better.  In case you are experiencing Feud-withdrawal, and you like a battle of wits, may I suggest Literary Feuds: A Century of Celebrated Quarrels?  Trust me, when it comes to insecurity and ugly behavior in public, writers are pugilists with words.
Take one of my favorite battles in the book, the one between Lillian Hellman and Mary McCarthy. You could argue these two, like Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, might have made better allies than enemies. As creative writers, political liberals, and women succeeding in fields still dominated by men they would have profited from mutual support.  Unfortunately, they also shared twin faults: neither responded well to criticism and both liked to get in the last verbal slam.  So, Lillian dismissed Mary’s negative review of her script by saying the opinion of a mere “Lady magazine writer” wasn’t worthy of her respect.  Now, Mary wasn’t a girl to let something like that go so when she was on TV, said Lillian, was an overrated, has-been and, “every word she writes is a lie, including ‘and,’ and ‘the.’  To Lillian, whose reputation at the time was based on her memoirs, those were fighting words. Lillian sued Mary the TV show, the station, and its host for every dime they had. Never mind that, since these gals were both past their peak of popularity, no one was really listening, or that Mary didn’t have enough money to make the litigation cost-effective. Never mind that a lawsuit could (and did) ultimately cause Lillian more damage than Mary’s original, catty remark.  Ms. Hellman stuck to the fight for years, while her health and reputation sank like the Titanic. Only dying allowed her lawyers to drop the suit.  And, McCarthy complained afterward that Lillian’s death kept her from winning outright in court.  Talk about your sore winner!
There are other wonderful tales of Writers Behaving Badly, like Truman Capote’s shot across the bow to Gore Vidal (“So, how does it feel to be an enfent terrible?) and Theodore Dreiser slapping Sinclair Lewis, but I’ll leave those for you to peruse.  In the meantime, before you get into your own war of words, remember, fights are only truly fun to those outside of the line of fire.  And writers know all the mean words.

Revelations about Revolutions

For the last two years, popular culture has been increasingly influenced by the musical, Hamilton. First, at the Public, then the Richard Rodgers Theatres in New York and now on its first national tour, Hamilton has garnered more acclaim, and awards than any show in recent memory (I think the last show to pick up the Pulitzer, as well as the Tony and the Grammy for Best Musical was How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying).  Nevertheless, this polished, game-changing production did not appear, full-blown overnight. Hamilton had a long, slow, evolutionary journey, and the story its creation is almost as fascinating and complex as the subject, itself. Thanks to its composer, Linn-Manuel Miranda, and columnist/critic Jeremy McCarter, we have an insight into that creative journey through the book, Hamilton, the Revolution.  Reading it doesn’t leave you thinking (ala The Grateful Dead), “What a long, strange, trip it’s been.”  It reminds us how good minds, and generous natures, can create works of genius.
Take one feature of this revolutionary musical, its employment of Hip Hop and Rap. These were chosen, not just because the composer knew and loved the mediums but because he knew they were the best modes to use for this musical.  As McCarter points out, before the American Revolution was a battle of weapons, it was a battle of words and ideas with essayists like Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson leading the attack.  To recapture the feeling of those verbal Molotov Cocktails and set them to music would require a text-heavy medium, something Hamilton’s composer well understood. Add this to the edgy, street-wise intelligence omnipresent in Rap and Hip Hop, and you have a revolutionary form of music to tell a revolutionary story.  Like some genius concepts, we only see in hindsight, how obvious this is.  
However, as gifted as Mr. Miranda is, his creative partners should not be slighted.  When I first saw the images of the musical’s set, I assumed it was a “bare bones” stage. All you see, if you Google these, (Sorry, I don’t own any I can add) are roughed in brick walls, wooden catwalks, some ropes and a pair of movable staircases.  It turns out this was an intentional choice the set designer came up with through research.  He learned early colonists built their first shelters with materials and techniques borrowed from ship-building.  Consequently, the first act’s set suggests a site still underway and under construction.  By moving a few walls and removing the ropes during intermission, the second act set lets us know we’re at a New World, both bigger and a little more settled.  
The reader learns every choice in the Hamilton production was intentional, including costumes, casting, and props.  There were debates, and disagreements, and mistakes on the way as well as a ton of revision.  The personal lives of the cast and production team often align with the musical, sometimes in heartbreaking ways.  Through it all, the composer and his creative team focus on each moment of the show, making it stronger, swifter and more focused.  If nothing else, Hamilton the Revolution reminds theatre-goers that plays and musicals aren’t the static dramatic pieces we know so well.  Those are simply the final, evolutionary results.  There is a world of story and song behind each one that ended up on the cutting-room floor.
So, before you put the soundtrack of Hamilton back into rotation or start the Herculean labor necessary to get tickets, open a copy of Hamilton, the Revolution and get to know the story behind this show.  Sondheim and Lapine wrote that “Art isn’t Easy”.  This book shows that Art is still worth the work.