Writing about work (#2 of 3)
Not all the reading assignments in this graduate seminar for students in creative writing are explicitly about work; one exemplifies a broad sense of American culture as a whole, and uses workingmen as illustration. This is Ralph Ellison’s essay “The Little Man at Chehaw Station” (in Going to the Territory, 1986, and perhaps written in 1977). I am amazed (yet again) at how Ellison’s vision of American culture is so committed to our uniquely American cultural motley of distinct traditions in conversation with one another, and to the artistic heterodoxy of individual artists. Ellison emphasizes the generous rather than the angry possibilities of a democratic society. By which I mean that Ellison is committed to seeing reality as it is. He means “democratic” even if only in the sense of how many voices we add up to, despite the way only a comparatively few powerful and wealthy ones have mostly determined what happens to us politically. Of course, Ellison knew all about that; but in addition to his acute sense of the broken promises of American ideals, he also had a faith in the individual, and in art—not as an effective instrument in the curing of social ills but as a site within which those ills are already confronted and at best are overcome artistically by the marvelous American openness to improvisation, by our freedom to draw the materials of art from all kinds of sources, and by the triumph of a dedicated virtuosity not of technique but of musicianship. That is, by a consummate mastery in the deepest, most human sense, whether in a gospel singer or an opera singer, a blues lyric or a novel.
And he had faith in the best artists’ appeal to the wisest and most capable judgment in the audience, not the worst. Perhaps this is why Ellison builds the whole essay out of recollecting a conversation about excellence in the mid-1930s, when he was a young trumpet player, with the formidable African American concert pianist and later teacher at Tuskegee Institute and Howard University, Hazel Harrison. In this encounter he learned from her that the ultimate judge of one’s performance must be imagined as an anonymous listener who knows everything and is always present but not necessarily noticed—someone who knows what can be at stake in human as well as artistic terms in every performance, and what can be accomplished on behalf of ideals within music, within the human capacity for thought and feeling, and beyond music as well.
Ellison writes: “Chehaw Station was a lonely whistle-stop where swift north- or south-bound trains paused with haughty impatience to drop off or take on passengers; the point where, on homecoming weekends, special coaches crowded with festoive visitors were cut loose, coupled to a waiting switch engine, and hauled to Tuskegee’s railroad siding” (4). About the man behind the stove, he writes, “As a citizen, the little man endures with a certain grace the social restrictions that limit his own social mobility; but as a reader, he demands that the relationship between his own condition and that of those more highly placed be recognized. He senses that the American experience is of a whole, and he wants the interconnections revealed. And not out of a penchant for protest, nor out of petulant vanity, but because he sees his own condition as an inseparable part of a larger truth in which the high and the lowly, the known and the unrecognized, the comic and the tragic are woven into the American skein. [...] At his best, he does not ask for scapegoats, but for the hero as witness” (14). He concludes the essay with a narrative of his meeting, three years after his conversation with Hazel Harrison, four “foulmouthed black workingmen” in a now long-gone “tenement buildinging in San Juan Hill, a Negro district that disappeared with the coming of Lincoln Center” (34, 33). These men, all four, turn out to be sitting unobtrusively but very authoritatively in the Chehaw Station.
The reading list for the course includes short pieces only; there are countless works of fiction and nonfiction that could be read in such a course, and some poetry, too, but I wanted to assign only readings that we would have time to discuss in our class. These include: Sherwood Anderson, “The Writing of Winesburg,” “The Finding”; John Cheever, “The Pot of Gold”; Anton Chekhov, “Anyuta,” “On Official Business”; Carolyn Chute, “Faces in the Hands”; John Clare, “The Harvest Morning,” “My First Attempts at Poetry,” from The Autobiography, “The Woodman”; W. S. Di Piero, “Work”; Frederick Douglass, “In the Shipyards” (1845), “In the Shipyards” (1855); Ralph Ellison, “The Little Man at Chehaw Station”; Kenneth Fearing, “Dirge,” “Agent No. 174 Resigns,” “Portrait of a Cog”; Leslie Feinberg, excerpt from Stone Butch Blues; Lewis Grassic Gibbon, from A Scots Quair (scenes from the third novel of that trilogy, Grey Granite); Dagoberto Gilb, “Romero’s Shirt”; Vivian Gornick, “The Catskills Remembered”; Lorraine Hansberry, from All the Dark and Beautiful Warriors; Edward P. Jones, “The Store”; John Keats, “To Autumn”; Jamaica Kinkaid, “Girl”; Maxine Hong Kingston, excerpt from China Men; D. H. Lawrence, “A Sick Collier”; Thomas McGrath, excerpt from Letter to an Imaginary Friend (scenes at the North Dakota farm, and about the organizer, Cal); Edwin Muir, from An Autobiography (on his jobs in Glasgow and Fairport); Annie Proulx, “Tits-Up in a Ditch”; Muriel Rukeyser, “The Book of the Dead”; Scott Russell Sanders, “Wood Work”; Irwin Shaw, “The Sunny Banks of the River Lethe,” “The Monument”; Jennifer Worth, from Call the Midwife; Tess Slesinger, “The Mouse-trap.” And in GRANTA 109, Work (2009) we read Donald Ray Pollack, Tommy,” Kent Haruf, “Any Man’s Death,” “Aminatta Forna, “The Last Vet,” and Ngugi wa Thiong’o, “Dreams in a Time of War.”
Beyond differences of temperament and artistic choices among writers, as among all artists, there are cultural differences between one group and another, too. The contrasts with American writing are especially interesting when a context of life abroad is different from one here—and equally interesting when they are similar. (Next: poetry and work)