Friday, February 29, 2008

Department Chair to Nadeem Aslam: "I hate you and want you to leave."

Was it T. S. Eliot who wrote "February is the shortest month / Mixing brevity with terseness / Except when leap year adds a day"? I believe it was, and to my colleagues and our students the month seemed brief indeed, so enamored of Nadeem Aslam are they.

Nadeem is the inaugural GW-British Council Writer in Residence, a month-long appointment that focuses upon the cultural dynamism of contemporary UK writing. As its mission statement stresses, the English Department here at GW is widely engaged with the transnational and global, from the literature of the Americas to Caribbean writing, from recent work to texts composed long ago. As the author of the stunning novel Maps for Lost Lovers, Nadeem was the perfect author for this residency -- and, indeed, the word "perfect" has been used by most to describe Nadeem, his work, and his time here in DC.

The Director of the British Council held a farewell dinner last night at her home, an impressive brick colonial behind which the National Cathedral rises. We did the usual thing, where the Officials spoke their Official Words, full of the appropriate and expected praise and thanks. When it came to the moment when the Department Chair was supposed to say something about pleasures, intellectual profits, and pleased-as-punchness, I instead confessed the following:

Last Tuesday I had been speaking with the Director of Creative Writing, complaining that Nadeem Aslam is too perfect. The students in his reading class regularly drop me love letters about the course; his numerous visits to our creative writing and literature classes have gone very well; the panels and readings we scheduled for him have drawn large and appreciative audiences; he is gracious, self-effacing, and utterly charismatic. Just as I was saying these things Nadeem walked down the hall, on his way to another class visit. He was dressed all in black, wearing a Smiths T-shirt (he does live in Manchester, after all) and designer sunglasses. His hair was disheveled in the precise way that only the well coiffed can manage. Though we were standing in an interior corridor, I'm fairly certain that the clouds opened and a ray of sun illuminated him as he strode. I should have said "Hello Nadeem." Instead I greeted him with "I hate you and I am counting the days until you leave."

You see (I explained to both Nadeem on that Tuesday, and to my audience last night) there is a such thing as being TOO perfect. Nadeem Aslam is an astonishing writer. He is possessed of both good humor and the ability to speak about almost anything. He is inspirational, a catalyst to all kinds of new thoughts and new projects among our faculty and students. He also renders any mortal scholar who happens to be standing next to him a mere schlump. So I say, good-riddance.

But we will miss you, Nadeem. Your residency here at GW has been extraordinary, and we thank you for it.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

A special thanks to our benefactors

The GW English Department would like to thank the following benefactors for their generous support this year:
  • Jenny Anne Burkholder (class of 1993)
  • Ross A. Cherry and Catherine L. Omerod (class of 1980)
  • Christine A. Coleman (class of 1991)
  • Dr. Richard M. Flynn (class of 1987)
  • Michal Fromer Mufson (class of 2003)
  • Mr and Mrs James R. Lothian
  • Dr. Gail Orgelfinger (class of 1972)
  • Jeanne Marie Rose (class of 1995)
  • Robert Jeffrey Schreiber (class of 1993)
  • Laura Ann Springer (class of 1997)
  • Jennifer Lyman Wagner (class of 1990)
The generosity of our alumni, parents of students, and friends improves every aspect of our departmental life. This year we have used donor money to send an undergraduate to his first academic conference; to hold a panel where English majors could converse with their professors about the most exciting research being conducted in literary studies; to assist scholars in securing the images and pay the copyright fees necessary for their books; to host a month-long residency of the renown novelist Nadeem Aslam; to give our graduate students and professors some help in getting to the archives they need for their research; to host readings, plays, and other cultural events open to all.

Thank you!

Monday, February 25, 2008

Tammy Greenwood-Stewart Wins the Maryland State Art Council's Artist Award

Congratulations! Earlier this month, it was announced that Tammy Greenwood-Stewart was chosen for the Individual Artist Award for her fiction. The fiction category is offered every other year, and it was Tammy's second time applying for the grant and her first time receiving the award. Here is a description of the award from the MSAC press release:
BALTIMORE, MD (February 7, 2008) – In celebration of the 10th annual Maryland Arts Day, Governor Martin O’Malley today announced that 97 Maryland artists have been selected to receive Individual Artist Awards totaling $250,000 from the Maryland State Arts Council, an agency of the Maryland Department of Business and Economic Development. The artists competed for $1,000, $3,000 and $6,000 awards in the following categories: Dance Solo Performance, Fiction, Media, Solo Instrumental Performance, Solo Vocal Performance, Solo Theatre Performance, Computer Arts, Photography and Sculpture.

In an email interview, Tammy thoughtfully answered my questions about her excitement for her newest honor, her current projects, and how much she loves teaching at GW.

What was the application/competition like and what did you have to submit for consideration?

The competition for this grant is based exclusively on a writing sample, which is judged anonymously. That is, the author's name does not appear on the manuscript. I think this encourages a decision based purely on the merit of the work (rather than the reputation -- or lack thereof -- associated with the author's name). I submitted a portion of a novel-in-progress called (for now) The Hungry Season.

Besides the honor and the prize money, will you have any ongoing responsibilities for the Maryland Arts Council as a part of the award?

I don't think so. My understanding is that the money awarded is simply to create an opportunity to buy time to work more. For me, this means a summer without my "day-job" of teaching and editing, and time to dedicate to my next novel.

Have you won many other awards, and if so, are you particularly proud of this newest accomplishment?

I always joke that I'm better at writing grants than I am at writing novels, because I think I've made more money from fellowships and grants than I have from advances on my books. Actually, I have probably just been more diligent in seeking out funds available to writers. I have received awards from the Sherwood Anderson Foundation, the Christopher Isherwood Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts. This grant means a lot to me, as they all have, because it validates the work that I do in a way that simultaneously financially enables me to pursue my writing.

Additionally, I was hoping you could tell me more about what you're currently working on: What types of projects do you have lined up?

My next novel, Two Rivers, will be published in February of 2009 by Kensington Books. I have a two-book contract with them, so I am now working on The Hungry Season, the book I mentioned before. It's a big messy mess of a draft right now, but I am excited about where it's headed. I write about Vermont a lot (that's where I'm from), and this novel returns to the fictional lake I imagined in my first novel. Some of the characters from that novel resurface in this one as well. It's a book about a family in the aftermath of the death of their teenage daughter, but, on a greater level, it is about all of the various manifestations of hunger: hunger for food, hunger for sex, hunger for love, hunger for what is lost, and hunger for success and celebrity. And it is also about the effects of starvation: of the body, of the mind, and of the soul.

Every summer I take my two daughters to Vermont to our summer cottage (we call it "camp") which is the basis of the fictional setting of the novel. This summer I plan to use my time there to really finish up the novel and imbue it with all the necessary geographical details. It's also a quiet place, and one of the few places where I seem to be able to avoid distraction.

I noticed you have also taken up photography? How do writing and photography work together for you creatively?

I used to dabble in photography in college, but I was so focused on my writing that I sort of let it fall by the wayside. Recently I bought myself a really nice digital SLR camera and started taking pictures again, and all the excitement and joy I used to experience in the darkroom came back (without needing a darkroom!). I think that writing and photography are both very similar and very different artistic endeavors. Each product (the novels, my photos) are windows into the way I see the world. I also tend to focus on the minutiae in my writing, the simple things. I do so in my photography as well.

Photography has actually also provided a necessary break from writing for me. And the product is so instantaneous. My last novel took five years to write. I put together my first photo exhibit in about eight months. I am still very much a novice, though, and I feel like I am still figuring out who I am as an artist. Because I am a self-taught photographer, I don't have the same confidence in my photographs as I do in my writing.

And, your time at GW-- Which classes do you teach? Do you enjoy them?

I teach 81: Introduction to Creative Writing and 103: Intermediate Fiction. I love teaching both of these classes. I really find so much pleasure in watching students discover their voices and watch as their stories bloom. Even the students who never thought they could write creatively are able to produce something they are proud of over the course of the semester.

What do you think of the GW students you find in your classes? Is there anything unique about the types of GW students you've had?

GW students are so driven. That is the key difference between them and other students I have had at other universities. And it's not just grades they are concerned about; they really, really want to take away as much as they can from every class. I get the sense that they all appreciate the unique learning opportunity they have at GW. They're also very, very smart. I don't find myself struggling to teach them the mechanical aspects of writing coherently. This allows us to focus on the creative process (without getting bogged down in grammar).

Please feel free to share with me anything I have not thought to ask!

I keep up a couple of websites... (writing) and (photography).

Tayari Jones on Black Women Writers

Former Jenny McKean Moore Writer in Residence Tayari Jones reflects upon literary traditions, finding one's voice, and the work of black women writers:
Black women writers of my generation must have a bravery that exceeds that of the women who went before us. Although they are said to have paved the way, I think a better metaphor is that they cleared away the brush. The road down which the next generation will travel is still in need of pavement. There is molten tar to be mixed and spread. The work will be difficult, dangerous, and essential.

Read the rest of Tayari's short essay at the blog Persephone Speaks.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Final Nadeem Aslam Event Monday!

A reminder that this Monday evening the English Department will be sponsoring a panel discussion, FICTION AND SURVIVAL: IMAGINATION, MIGRATION, AND DIASPORA, featuring Nadeem Aslam, H. G. Carrillo, and Joanne Leedom-Ackerman.

Nadeem Aslam is our inaugural British Council U.K. Writer in Residence; H. G. Carrillo teaches Creative Writing here at GW; Joanne Leedom-Ackerman is a novelist and writer who is a Vice President and former International Secretary of PEN International, an organization which endeavors to assist oppressed writers in terms of both personal survival and free expression. Professor Judith Plotz of the GW English Department will be moderating the panel.

The panel will begin at 8 PM in the Marvin Center Amphitheatre, Monday Feb. 25. It is free and open to the public, but seating is limited.

Please come both to listen and to ask your questions of these articulate, informed, and committed individuals. And please spread the word.

See you there! -- David McAleavey

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Professor Sten's New Melville Book

Professor Chris Sten proudly discusses his Melville anthology "Whole Oceans Away" Melville and the Pacific, which was released in the fall of 2007. In 2003 at a Melville Conference in Maui, HI, (what a great benefit of studying Melville!) Prof. Sten and two other editors began the project of soliciting and compiling a variety of essays focusing on Melville's time in the Pacific. From the many submissions the editors received, they selected nearly 20 essays and prepared them for inclusion in the anthology. After much back and forth revision between the contributors and the editors, the anthology was ready to go to the printers. The anthology was picked up by Kent State University Press, which specializes in Melville scholarship, so they were excited about publishing the book. Never before had there been such a comprehensive anthology of scholarship on Melville's writings on the Pacific, so the book is satisfying what was once a noticeable void.

Melville spent three years of his life as a sailor in the Pacific area, and many of the essays contained in the anthology are historical as well as literary. Although the book is intended for an academic audience, Prof. Sten was quick to inform me that there is an essay about tattoo culture in the Pacific area. Prof. Sten also wrote an essay included in the anthology: "Facts Picked up in the Pacific": Fragmentation, Deformation, and the (Cultural) Uses of Enchantment in "The Encantadas."

When asked about the success of the book, Prof. Sten said that it is too soon to receive critical reviews; however, the book's first run has already sold out and a second printing was released. While it is no surprise that many universities, professors, and libraries would be eager to purchase the book, it is still good news and an indication of the book's purposefulness.

For an opportunity to read Moby Dick or other works by Melville with one of the most prominent Melville scholars, you can register for Prof. Sten's course, 167: The American Novel: 19th Century, which will likely be offered again next fall.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Fundraising Priorities

Below is a copy of a document I've just sent along to our dean and Advancement Office. Each department chair has been asked to come up with a Wish List. This dream of financial salvation will apparently be kept in mind should an eager donor or a genie who grants wishes suddenly materialize. I thought that this blog's readers might be interested in what we've put forward and why.

What have you used donor money for this year?

Donor money has been used to fund faculty research (especially travel to conferences; publishing books; and money for archival visits). We will also used these funds to send an undergraduate (Alex Frank) to his first scholarly conference. We have employed donor contributions to sponsor a series of events for undergraduates, events aimed at increasing their sense of intellectual community and allowing them to get to know faculty outside of the classroom. One such event was a "Futures of the Field" symposium in the fall, in which faculty conversed with English majors about what they felt was the most exciting research being done in literary and cultural studies, and what directions literary study was heading towards in the years ahead. About 35 English majors attended.

What would a single annual donation of $1,000 be used to fund?

With $1000 we would host a one day "In and of Washington" literary symposium for all CCAS undergraduates which would focus on DC as a literary city. We'd emphasize how Washington has been a historic location for the flowering of African American literature, and continues through the Folger to be a world class resource for the study of Renaissance England, especially Shakespeare. We'd also emphasize how this multicultural city is the perfect setting for the department's engagement with literature within a global frame.

What needs do you have that could be met with amounts of:


This amount of money, especially if promised for a span of years, would allow us to continue our ambitious series of literary readings, the Jenny McKean Moore series and its avant garde counterpart, the Jenny 2. Both of these series -- beloved of our undergraduates, our alumni, and the community more generally -- are currently being run a shoestring budget. $5K per year would allow a healthier, more ambitious program.


This amount of money per year would enable us to continue our hugely successful GW-British Council Writer in Residence. Now in its inaugural year and off to a smashing start with Nadeem Aslam, we have funding for the program for only two more years. In the absence of a donor we will have to terminate this extraordinarily valuable program.


This amount of money would allow the English Department to renew its physical space, now in need of renovation. We are especially interested in refurbishing our lounge to make it a place where undergraduates and faculty can interact . Currently we have no space conducive to the kinds of informal conversation over which community is formed. We would also like to purchase new chairs and tables for our heavily used seminar room, and bring some artwork to our halls. All in all we would like to give the department a better sense of place.


This amount of money would enable a ten year run of a high profile, named lecture in literature. A scholar of wide interest and international fame would deliver to a general audience a lecture about literature and the arts. A reception and formal dinner would follow. Most wealthy American universities have such an annual event, eagerly anticipated by alumni. We suggest that this lecture have a Shakespeare theme, to emphasize our connection to the Folger, but we are happy to have a more general literary focus as well.


This amount of money in a lump sum would enable us to continue indefinitely our hugely successful GW-British Council Writer in Residence (see notation at $25K).


About this amount of money needs to be added to the Jenny McKean Moore endowment in order to ensure its longterm viability. Our "Writer in Washington" residency does not have an adequate salary attached to it, and we cannot pay the surrounding expenses (such as rent at Lenthall House) as well as we would like. Boosting this endowment would allow us to attract a much higher profile writer for a year at GW. The JMM has been successful in its current modest form, but the endowment is now showing strain; an influx of funding would allow us to create something nationally visible, something great.

What endowed faculty positions do you need?

We need an endowed chair in Jewish American Literature. The English Department has long had deep strengths in the study of ethnic and minority literatures. Our faculty our internationally known for their teaching and scholarship in African American, Asian American, Caribbean, Irish, South Asian, and other literary traditions. Given these strengths, we desire to expand and better integrate our teaching of Jewish literature in English. We have many undergraduates who wish to take courses in the area, but no faculty member solely devoted to Jewish American literature. We hope, through the generosity of a committed donor, to be able to hire a faculty member who will bring this vibrant tradition of writing permanently into our curriculum. Students at GW, English majors and non-majors alike, deserve to have the chance to experience the richness of this field.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Jane Shore Reads Elizabeth Bishop

If you, like me, forgot to turn your television to the News Hour on Valentine's Day to listen to poet and GW faculty member Jane Shore read Elizabeth Bishop's poem "One Art" -- despair not! You can watch the entire performance via streaming video here.

And, for your enjoyment, the poem itself.

One Art
The art of losing isn't hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn't hard to master.

Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.

I lost my mother's watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn't hard to master.

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn't a disaster.

---Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan't have lied. It's evident
the art of losing's not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.

Literary Studies Workshop

Dear English majors,

Just a quick reminder that our new workshop series in Literary Studies (ENGL 701-10) is scheduled for later this month and early March.

The first workshop, on Working with Archives and Electronic Resources, will meet on Wednesday February 27 between 7:00 and 8:30; it will feature Cathy Eisenhower from the Gelman Library, Sarah Werner from the Folger Shakespeare Libary, and Abby Yochelson from the Library of Congress.

The second workshop, on New Directions in Research, will meet on Wednesday March 5 between 7:00 and 8:30; it will feature Professor Jonathan Hsy (Medieval and Early Modern Studies), Professor Jennifer James (Nineteenth-Century Studies), and Professor Antonio Lopez (Twentieth and Twenty-First-Century Studies).

The final workshop, on Undergraduate Research projects, will meet on Wednesday March 12 between 7:00 and 8:30; it will feature this year's English Honors Program students, including Taylor Kate Brown, Lisa Francavilla, Alex Frank, Cat MacCurdy, Roxie Maisel, Nada Shawish, Sarah Whittemore, and Lizzie Wozobski.

The workshop series is open to all students; but it is required of all applicants to next year's Honors Program (applications are due March 26) except those who are studying abroad this semester. If you plan to take the workshop, you must register for the course (ENGL 701-10). Although the official deadline for registering online has passed, I can sign in anyone who wishes to take the course. Please let me know ASAP if you need me to sign you in.

Jonathan Gil Harris
Director of Honors & Undergraduate Studies

Monday, February 18, 2008

From the Colonialist

From a student-run blog that I enjoy reading:
The University announced today that GW will be receiving a 10 million dollar donation by the Smith family and the Kogod family to renovate the Smith Center. This is the largest donation ever made to the University. And it's for basketball.

While I have nothing against basketball, I'm sure that $10 million could be better spent on improving our classrooms, paying our professors better or to help fund the new water park on Square 54. That's change we can believe in.

I have to agree -- and not only with the water park idea (my kids would cease complaining about being dragged to campus). Can't this kind of money be invested into something besides sports? While I suppose it is nice thing to boast of a luxurious facility for our student athletes, don't we live in a culture where sports are both omnipresent and overvalued already? (I say that as an ardent Red Sox fan, by the way, and as someone who really does believe in the good old "a sound mind in a sound body" aphorism).

Wouldn't it be great to see $10 million go to, oh, say, the arts at GW? To the study of literature and culture in history? Wouldn't that be more in line with what a university should be all about?
UPDATE 2/19: The total expenditure is at least twenty five million (ten million from two philanthropists plus fifteen million that GW is obligated to pitch in). The GW Hatchet says the commitment "will launch a revitalized image of GW for current and potential students while attracting new donors and elements to campus life". Me, I'm not so sure. I know everyone likes basketball games. Everyone enters the center for convocation and commencement. But think of what $25 million could do for GW academics. Did I mention that we in CCAS are in another fiscal crunch, and will be for the foreseeable future?

Friday, February 15, 2008

Nadeem Aslam Reading and Reception

On February 7, Nadeem Aslam read from his soon-to-be published third novel, a mesmerizing performance. The reading was followed by a reception at which GW alumni mingled with current students over a delicious array of desserts. The reception was the first in what we hope will be a long series of such events, aimed at establishing a lifetime of engagement with GW and with the English department for both our current students and our alumni.

We were pleased to see so many alumni, students and faculty in attendance: both the reading and the reception were full, offering a chance for some graduates of GW to reconnect with the university's vibrant present and promising future. And, in case you could not come ... here are some pictures provided by the GW Alumni Association. At top, Nadeem is reading from his work. Below, Nadeem is posing graciously with Columbian College Dean Peg Barratt and English department chair Jeffrey Cohen. (is it just me, or does that department chair look like he is slightly, well, crazy?)

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Happy Valentine's Day

While not Valentine's themed, Robert Hass's "Privilege of Being" is the first poem that jumps to mind when I think of great romantic poetry. For the in-love and love cynics alike, enjoy and Happy Valentine's Day.

Privilege of Being
Robert Hass

Many are making love. Up above, the angels
in the unshaken ether and crystal of human longing
are braiding one another's hair, which is strawberry blond
and the texture of cold rivers. They glance
down from time to time at the awkward ecstasy--
it must look to them like featherless birds
splashing in the spring puddle of a bed--
and then one woman, she is about to come,
peels back the man's shut eyelids and says,
look at me, and he does. Or is it the man
tugging the curtain rope in that dark theater?
Anyway, they do, they look at each other;
two beings with evolved eyes, rapacious,
startled, connected at the belly in an unbelievably sweet
lubricious glue, stare at each other,
and the angels are desolate. They hate it. They shutter pathetically
like lithographs of Victorian beggars
with perfect features and alabaster skin hawking rags
in the lewd alleys of the novel.
All of creation is offended by this distress.
It is like the keening sound the moon makes sometimes,
rising. The lovers especially cannot bear it,
it fills them with unspeakable sadness, so that
they close their eyes again and hold each other, each
feeling the mortal singularity of the body
they have enchanted out of death for an hour so,
and one day, running at sunset, the woman says to the man,
I woke up feeling so sad this morning because I realized
that you could not, as much as i love you,
dear heart, cure my loneliness,
wherewith she touched his cheek to reassure him
that she did not mean to hurt him with this truth.
And the man is not hurt exactly,
he understands that life has limits, that people
die young, fail at love,
fail of their ambitions. He runs beside her, he thinks
of the sadness they have gasped and crooned their way out of
coming, clutching each other with old, invented
forms of grace and clumsy gratitude, ready
to be alone again, or dissatisfied, or merely
companionable like the couples on the summer beach
reading magazine articles about intimacy between the sexes
to themselves, and to each other,
and to the immense, illiterate, consoling angels.

To hear the audio version of Robert Hass reading this poem, click here.

Tara Wallace on Jane Austen

Professor Tara Wallace was interviewed last month in the Washington Post about The Complete Jane Austen, to be aired on PBS. The interview was reprinted in the Honolulu Advertiser, Buffalo News, Charleston Post, Tulsa World, San Jose Mercury, Columbus Dispatch and Miami Herald. Professor Wallace is a popular teacher of eighteenth-century literature as well as the Director of Graduate Studies.

Here's an excerpt from the Post interview, on why Austen films so well:

"I think that the novels are so open-ended and subtle that they allow us to speak to ourselves," said Tara Ghoshal Wallace, an associate professor and Austen scholar at George Washington University. "People love these novels and they can't get enough of new versions of them" on screen.

One reason why Austen's novels are well-suited to television adaptation, Wallace said, is that Austen is "so good at dialogue."

"She's a scriptwriter's dream," Wallace said, "because there's so little to do."

Mark your calendar now: Look for Professor Wallace live on the WETA videoblog on 25 March, in connection with their Austen extravaganza.

U R Special 2 Us

We wish all of our readers a happy Valentine's Day -- the only holiday invented by Chaucer. More proof that he was better than Shakespeare.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Featured Alumnus: David Bruce Smith

David Bruce Smith, an alumnus of GW’s English Department, has published a new book entitled Three Miles from Providence: A Tale of Abraham Lincoln and the Soldier’s Home. The book is written for the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Its publication coincides with the completion of the refurbishment of Lincoln’s Cottage in Washington, DC where Abraham Lincoln and his family summered. The president also composed a draft of the Emancipation Proclamation there.

Three Miles from Providence is the fictional diary of Elliot Q. Burdette, a soldier charged with guarding Lincoln during his time at the cottage. The book begins with a letter from Burdette to his descendants, speaking about his desire to secure for history the many stories that unfolded within the house’s walls. These stories are told from Burdette’s point of view, as well as with his diction. A veteran of the Mexican-American war and a high school graduate, his writing conveys the spoken English of the time. Though the narrator is invented, most of the people with whom he interacts are historical, making the book a blend of the artistic with the factual.

The diary is continued through seven generations, with each new narrator signaled by a change of font. For continuity, all succeeding generations also have the same middle initial (“Q” for Quentin). The most recent entries are done via Blackberry and email to give the interchanges a contemporary feel. Also passed along with the diary is a scarf, the gift of President Lincoln to Elliot Q. Burdette. The fate of this present at the book’s close is quite striking. The book is beautifully produced on handmade paper. There are copious sketches and illustrations. The book is bound within a handsome brown leather satchel.

In an interview David Bruce Smith spoke about the challenges of composing a work about Abraham Lincoln, one of the most written about people in world history. He rejected the idea of a straightforward narrative of Lincoln’s time at the cottage as too similar to the kinds of works that have already been composed about the man. The idea of using a diary form and adopting a soldier’s viewpoint is Smith’s innovative way of reapproaching the Lincoln story and making it fresh.

Mr. Smith also spoke fondly of some of his GW English professors, especially Christopher Sten. Mr. Smith took two upper division courses with Professor Sten at the precocious age of eighteen (he never told the teacher that he’d skipped the prerequisites), and truly enjoyed both.

More information about David Bruce Smith may be found at his website. The book may be purchased via Amazon.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Jane Shore on the Newshour with Jim Lehrer

Poet and faculty member Jane Shore will appear on The Newshour this Thursday night. She will be reading Elizabeth Bishop poems to accompany Lloyd Schwartz's interview about editing the Elizabeth Bishop Library of America volume coming out on Valentine's Day.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Postcard from New Orleans

Former featured alumnus Jon Williams sends this picture from his celebration of Mardi Gras. We publish it without comment.

We love hearing from you! Drop us a line -- or an image -- at

Friday, February 8, 2008

Folger-GW Undergraduate Research Seminar 2007: A Report from the Instructor, Sarah Werner

This past fall saw the inaugural class of the Folger-GW Undergraduate Research Seminar. Focused on “Books and Early Modern Culture,” the seminar is the first offering of the new Undergraduate Program at the Folger Shakespeare Library. The seminar was developed with the support of the Dean’s office of the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences at The George Washington University, with the purpose of offering to exceptional undergraduate humanities students the opportunity to conduct advanced-level independent research. Eight students successfully applied for admission to the seminar, all seniors and coming from majors in English, History, French, and Music. The course introduced students to the roles that printed books played in Renaissance society; it also allowed students to become Readers at the Folger, a privilege that is usually extended only to Ph.D. students and faculty.

I had the great pleasure of teaching the course this fall. One of the rewards of this work has been the opportunity to discover items in the Folger’s substantial collection. Because my research usually focuses on modern productions of Shakespeare, I rarely need to look at early modern books. But my first loves were Milton’s Paradise Lost and Philip Sidney’s and Mary Wroth’s sonnet sequences, so to have an excuse to go back into the archives was delightful.
Part of the thrill of rare books is seeing traces of their readers. We are lucky that when the Folgers were building their collection, they valued marked-up copies of books. Many collectors of their era preferred books to be “clean” rather than “dirty” (what a way to refer to readers’ marginalia!), and collectors would not only try to buy books that had not been written in, but they would even bleach and trim pages so as to rid them of readers’ marks. William Lily’s A short introduction of grammar was the standard Latin textbook in the period, and this copy bears witness to the many students who used it not only to learn Latin, but to practice writing their alphabet. You can see one owner’s inscription just above the woodcut on the titlepage: “Jhone Scott with my hand at the pene.”

Other books are more carefully inscribed, one owner’s name after another, often tracing its descent through a single family. This copy of a 1550 printing of The workes of Geffray Chaucer bears inscriptions of a number of former owners, including Frances Wolfrestron, a seventeenth-century book collector who often marked her books. This one is signed, “Frances Wolfresston her bouk given her by her motherilaw mary wolfreston.” When Frances Wolfreston died in 1677, she willed her collection to her son; our copy has three other signatures from the Wolfreston family, and the Folger has other books from her collection as well. Wolfreston might be the most notable collector's signature in this book, but its other owners took equal care in inscribing their names. The second image on the right shows verses signed by Dorothy Egerton and the inscription of one of her descendents, Anne Vernon.

But perhaps my favorite recent discovery from our rare materials collection is a beautiful 1928 edition of Hamlet by Cranach Press. It’s a wonderful example of the book arts movement, with type and woodcuts made specifically for this printing. The book prints a German translation of Shakespeare’s play, surrounded by excerpts from source materials of the Hamlet story from Belleforest and Saxo Grammaticus and incorporating woodcuts by Edward Gordon Craig. The play is not simply illustrated, however. The woodcuts and the page layout work together to tell the story of the play. The opening pages show beautifully this interplay, with the guards leaning up against the “W” from the play’s opening lines, “Wer da?” The most striking moment comes at the report of Ophelia’s death, which is illustrated by a rectangle of pale blue with an isolated figure standing within it. It’s the only place in the book where the color blue is used, and when you turn the page and see the image, the sadness and isolation of her death hits home. It is an astoundingly moving example of how typography, color, and illustration—the mise-en-page—can affect a reader more profoundly than words alone.

-- Sarah Werner, Folger Shakespeare Library (

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Nadeem Aslam reads TONIGHT

A reminder -- Nadeem Aslam, our first British Council Writer in Residence, will be reading from his work tonight at 7 PM in the Marvin Center Amphitheatre.

Nadeem Aslam is the author of two prize-winning novels, SEASON OF THE RAINBIRDS and MAPS FOR LOST LOVERS. His third novel, THE WASTED VIGIL, will be published this fall (by Faber in the U.K., Knopf in the U.S.).

The reading is free, but seating is limited.

On the other hand, Nadeem will be reading from his work again, in a week, on Valentine's Day -- at 8 PM, also in the Amphitheatre. That reading will be a dual reading, also featuring the Indian novelist Manil Suri, whose second novel, THE AGE OF SHIVA, is being published this month.

Finally, Nadeem will participate in a panel discussion, dealing with the imagination and representation of such issues as migration, diasporic and minority experience, and inter-cultural conflict, on Feb. 25 (8 PM, same space), with H. G. Carrillo (author of LOOSING MY ESPANISH) and Joanne Leedom-Ackerman (a novelist who has worked extensively with PEN International, supporting oppressed and imprisoned writers around the world).

Hope to see you tonight, and at all three of these events.

-- David McAleavey, Director of Creative Writing

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

An Introduction to Nadeem Aslam

Mr. Aslam was worth the wait! Despite last fall's disappointment that Mr. Aslam could not arrive as planned, we welcome him now to GW. Tuesday night marked the beginning of the month-long seminar that Mr. Aslam will be conducting for ten undergraduates. The one credit course includes reading three novels by contemporary British authors and writing about the experience. Mr. Aslam is an enchanting and charming man, who described our weekly meetings as book clubs with a professional writer. Then he asked, "When is that writer getting here?"

He casually outlined our plans for how we will spend our time together: read the novels and discuss the writer's construction of culture and characters. Mr. Aslam spoke about how he has spent many years with a book, returning to it time and again to puzzle out certain sequences that have stuck with him. The first novel we'll read is Alan Warner's Morvern Callar, and our instructions are to read the book with a pencil in hand and to decide if we think the protagonist's actions are convincing and fit her personality.

Mr. Aslam read aloud to us and also recounted memorable moments from books he admires, such as The English Patient and One Hundred Years of Solitude. Based on my first impression, I highly recommend everyone attend Mr. Aslam's reading this Thursday night.

Nadeem Aslam Reading, Thursday, February 7, 2008. 7-9 p.m. Free.
Cloyd Heck Marvin Center, Amphitheater, 3rd Floor

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

On Black History Month

The following is taken from Tayari Jones's recent essay "Symbolism and Cynicism," published in The Believer:
The irony is that those who would opt out of Black History Month share the goals of its founder. Although many black people grumble that it is not their responsibility to educate white people about our worth, most would agree that racism stems largely from ignorance, the antidote to this is obviously education, and somebody’s got to do it. The question is whether refusing the invitations serves any purpose besides giving the writer a sense that she is doing something to address the problem. This, of course, brings in a second irony: performing a symbolic action to critique the symbolism of another equally symbolic action. This quiet act of “resistance” vibrates no further than the consciousness of the writer in question. The flip side of the complaint—“The only time they invite me is in February”—is to imagine the scenario from the point of view of the audience: “The only chance I get to see these writers is in February.” This idea is even more compelling when you consider that audiences during Black History Month are disproportionately African American, many of whom live off the usual black book-tour circuit—D.C., Atlanta, Chicago, Detroit, etc. They arrive for these February events in excited groups—sometimes they are members of book clubs, other times they are families.
Tayari Jones was our Jenny McKean Moore Writer in Residence in 2007-08. She is the author of Leaving Atlanta and The Untelling.