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An American Mosaic: Prose and Poetry for Everyday Folk written by Robert Wolf

 

An American Mosaic: Prose and Poetry for Everyday Folk written by Robert Wolf

Overview:

From Walt Whitman's catalog of America to Thomas Hart Benton's American epics painted on walls across the country to Studs Terkel's documentaries, much artistic and literary labor has stemmed from the urge to figure out what makes this country tick. Any attempt at so large a canvas as this disparate country will be fragmented and incomplete, but like Benton's 1932 mural "American Today", American Mosaic is composed of pieces that taken together provide a vivid look at vanishing scenes of American life.
Here, Robert Wolf offers a collective autobiography of the American heartland written for the most part by everyday men and women without literary ambition. Focusing on the second half of the twentieth century, this collection of essays, short stories, poems, and memoirs—woven together with Wolf's introductory notes—is the culmination of nine years of Free River Press writing workshops conducted by Wolf for the purpose of documenting contemporary American life.
The volume includes work from homeless men and women from Tennessee, small farmers in rural Iowa, residents of Midwestern small towns, the Mississippi Delta, and river communities on the Mississippi. These first-person, eyewitness accounts offer glimpses of daily life: the farmers' struggles against large corporations; poetic meditations on life in the streets, on the road, and in prison; tall tales of river town saloons; and the social rituals of cooking, town hall and party phone lines across America's small towns. Among many narratives, American Mosaic gives us the ruminations of a homeless woman over a martini in El Gilbert's poem "Drunk," descriptions of hearty, communal meals during the July harvest in Clara Leppert's piece "Meals for Threshers," a picture of the goings-on in a West Helena, Arkansas juke joint with Chris Crawford's essay "Lucky Lacey," and the reminiscences of a former Mississippi River towboat captain in Jack Libby's "The Midnight Watch Change."
Together, these diverse stories comprise panels of a literary mural of America. American Mosaic is a compelling testament to regional and local American voices and folkways which are fast disappearing through the relentless push towards a global economy and culture.

Synopsis:

From Walt Whitman's catalog of America to Thomas Hart Benton's American epics painted on walls across the country to Studs Terkel's documentaries, much artistic and literary labor has stemmed from the urge to figure out what makes this country tick. Any attempt at so large a canvas as this disparate country will be fragmented and incomplete, but like Benton's 1932 mural "American Today", American Mosaic is composed of pieces that taken together provide a vivid look at vanishing scenes of American life.
Here, Robert Wolf offers a collective autobiography of the American heartland written for the most part by everyday men and women without literary ambition. Focusing on the second half of the twentieth century, this collection of essays, short stories, poems, and memoirs—woven together with Wolf's introductory notes—is the culmination of nine years of Free River Press writing workshops conducted by Wolf for the purpose of documenting contemporary American life.
The volume includes work from homeless men and women from Tennessee, small farmers in rural Iowa, residents of Midwestern small towns, the Mississippi Delta, and river communities on the Mississippi. These first-person, eyewitness accounts offer glimpses of daily life: the farmers' struggles against large corporations; poetic meditations on life in the streets, on the road, and in prison; tall tales of river town saloons; and the social rituals of cooking, town hall and party phone lines across America's small towns. Among many narratives, American Mosaic gives us the ruminations of a homeless woman over a martini in El Gilbert's poem "Drunk," descriptions of hearty, communal meals during the July harvest in Clara Leppert's piece "Meals for Threshers," a picture of the goings-on in a West Helena, Arkansas juke joint with Chris Crawford's essay "Lucky Lacey," and the reminiscences of a former Mississippi River towboat captain in Jack Libby's "The Midnight Watch Change."
Together, these diverse stories comprise panels of a literary mural of America. American Mosaic is a compelling testament to regional and local American voices and folkways which are fast disappearing through the relentless push towards a global economy and culture.

Book Magazine

Broke Heart Blues
Dutton
Joyce Carol Oates
The small-town life, characterized by simple times, an affinity with the soil and a sense of moral backbone, has been idealized and evoked over the years. The call to reminisce about "the way things used to be' seems to exert a magnetic pull directly proportional to the mounting frenzy of contemporary life. Three new books—a memoir, a novel and an anthology—provide opportunities to examine this small-town lifestyle as well as the people who live it. The three evoke an unpretentious way of life that is becoming increasingly foreign to many of us.

It is precisely this locus between what used to be and what is fast becoming that illuminates Bobbie Ann Mason's Clear Springs, a quiet and exacting memoir that vibrates with life. Beginning on the family farm in rural Kentucky, Mason's memoir traces three generations of her family, from the upbringing and courtship of her grandparents and her grandmother's struggles with mental illness, through her parents' hardscrabble farming career and her own childhood on that farm. Mason leaves this setting to go off to college and graduate school, far from the fields of her childhood. She lives in the counterculture of New York City in the 1960s, becomes an award-winning writer, returns home to oversee the filming of her novel, In Country, and finally settles back in Kentucky.

Mason's story meanders like a well-trod country lane, with precise humor and startling intelligence. After the death of her father, for instance, Mason tries to get her mother to talk of her own childhood. Orphaned at an early age and raised by extended family, her mother oftentold the story of receiving an orange one Christmas as her only gift, though she refuses to give much else of her history. Her mother's reticence fuels Mason's desire to know and to understand how all the parts of her history have come together in her own life. "Drawing on the theory of chaos,' she writes, "I imagine how the Christmas orange comes down to me. In chaos theory, the smallest incident has far-reaching consequences. The ripple effect of the exhaust fan of an air conditioner in Paducah, say, may eventually affect a storm in Padua. I like to imagine how generations of the attitudes and behaviors of country people—a legacy of paucity and small shadings of pride and resistance and shame—intertwined and radiated down through time in increasingly complicated shapes. There is much more to my mother's story than the orange. I want to know the details. I want to color in the outline.'

In the act of coloring in these outlines, Mason translates her family's existence into a universal story about the search for meaning and the limitations of history. Mason celebrates the singularity of every life experience as she details her kindred. "One reason to fashion a story,' she tells us, "is to lift a grudge. I can see my mother holding the weight of her life. It is too much to sum up or dispense with or bury.' Veering clear of sentimentality, Mason's Clear Springs uses reverence for the written word and the uniqueness of life to fashion a living, breathing portrait of plain country living.

The same sense of awe finds voice in the anthology An American Mosaic: Prose and Poetry by Everyday Folk. The book's editor, Robert Wolf, spent the past decade hosting writing workshops, encouraging people to first tell their stories orally, and then to shape their narratives by writing them down. In this collection, residents of Northeast Iowa, Tennessee and the Miss issippi Delta ruminate on the ancestral way of life that seems to be dying in the modern age.

The writing here is hit or miss. Most compelling are the "Communal Life' and "River and Delta' sections, where the voices flow freely without editorial interruption. In other sections, Wolf becomes overly didactic, submitting overwrought and polemical commentary, as well as his own moralizing essays on the evils of nonorganic farming and the Jeffersonian ideal. But when he stays in the background, the stories his writers tell are vivid and alive with multilayered emotions.

Less filled with awe, the twenty-ninth novel by the ubiquitous Joyce Carol Oates, Broke Heart Blues, is set in Willowsville, New York, population five thousand six hundred forty, circa 1960. The inbred community provides merely a backdrop for a story that focuses on the nature of celebrity and how easily a myth can take hold—in backwater locales or anywhere else.

When John Reddy Heart, a recently arrived sixteen-year-old high-school student, murders a longstanding member of the community, a man whom Heart found naked in his mother's bedroom late one night, the town is awash in rumor. Told almost exclusively from the point of view of an amorphous "we'—the collective first-person of Heart's schoolmates—the story depicts Heart as an idol to the boys and a heartthrob to the girls who maintains his tough-guy silence throughout. Ultimately, the lives of Heart's classmates are irrevocably altered by the creation of the Heart myth and its evolution over the following thirty years.

In Oates' story, there's no real sense of the idiosyncratic manner of small towns and the individuals that comprise them in Broke Heart Blues. Oates has created a town so dubiously innocent it's easily bowled over by the James Dean caricature of John Reddy Heart. The rich earthiness and personal texture found in the Mason memoir and the best of Wolf's anthology are completely lacking, the plot is far-fetched and the characters are parodies of well-known stereotypes. The most outrageous character, John Reddy's mother, is Dahlia Heart, a tired satire of a vamp we've all seen before. And John Reddy himself is shown in so few character details—other than the mythologized version his classmates have created—that there's little insight into what motivates him or why his community needs to lionize him. When his background is finally given, two-thirds of the way through the novel, it's too little, too late.

Readers who want a true glimpse of small-town life—in other words, readers looking for something more than a satirically drawn hamlet standing in as a symbol—will not find it here. Though Broke Heart Blues is meant to be a meditation on how a blank canvas can be filled by communal longings, the narrative remains little more than sketched-in as Oates explores the effects of celebrity. Her small town comes out looking shallow and simple, whereas the efforts of Mason and Wolf illustrate the rich color and diversity of American small-town life. —Bernadette Murphy

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