The Strange Case of Thomas Stearns Eliot

ALL-TIME AMERICAN WRITERS TOURNAMENT

T.S. Eliot

Poetry icon T.S. Eliot, originally penciled in for either a #4 or #5 seed in our tourney brackets, did indeed become a British citizen, in 1927– renouncing his U.S. citizenship in so doing.

One would think that being an American writer involves, at minimum, identifying oneself AS American.
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As important, we’ve received word that Mr. Eliot has no plans to attend the Tournament! (We’re still negotiating this aspect.)

The question’s on our mind
We ponder all the time

With so many writers to squeeze into 64 spots, do we include Thomas Stearns Eliot as one of them?

If anyone cares to make the case for Eliot as an American writer, DO SO. We’ll gladly post it. 300 words. newpoplitATgmail.

Report from the Venue

boxing ring

There’s a palpable buzz in town today. People suspect something big may occur. I figure they’ve heard the loud voices coming from the Selection Committee room. But there’ve been other happenings. Among them:

-Several mysterious writer figures have booked into the Grand Hotel.

-The Poetry community, practitioners of the art who’ve taken up residence in the area, have undergone a change in mood. Initially euphoric that one of their number was the second name chosen, they’ve now dropped, as is their nature, to the other extreme. Speculation exists that it’ll be many seeds before another poet makes the brackets. I’ve heard grumbling. “Where’s Eliot?” they’ve asked. “At least Eliot! Or Poe? How can you leave out Poe?” I don’t tell them that Poe’s entry, when it occurs, will have more to do with his fabulous stories than his poetry.

-The poets are especially ticked-off at sudden rumors that T.S. Eliot isn’t even American! (More about that controversy upcoming.)

-At the same time, a coffeeshop is poised to open at the end of the main street. Poetry advocates have been seen inside, directing workmen. There’ve been arguments about where to place the tables. Poets, as is their nature, seldom agree about anything. The poets must see the coffeeshop as a way to lobby for their kind. Poets have been known to host impromptu readings at such places.

-The Big Four have been conveniently sent out of town to scout for pine trees. Good American pine will be needed to construct the outdoor arena in which the matches will take place. Before they left, Herman Melville was seen to duck quickly back into the Grand Hotel, possibly to see one of the new visitors. All is speculation! Then the four left. Hemingway was grinning, impossibly happy to be with his new compatriots. They’re supposed to locate tracts of pine, but word in town is that instead they’ve gone hunting and fishing.

-Some of the writers– Joyce Carol Oates among them– have located an exercise room in the basement of the old hotel. I dropped in to take a look. It’s not at all like a modern gym, but instead has equipment last used in the 19th century– dumbbells and boxing gloves. When I glanced around I saw Mary McCarthy, or someone who looked like Mary McCarthy, using the heavy gloves to punch out a silhouette of Lillian Hellman. Oates watched, egging the burgundy-haired woman on. “Bunny” Wilson the lit critic– an extreme longshot to make the event– stood by as well.

emily-dickinson painting

-Emily D, overwhelmed by the excitement of past days, has taken to her room. She’s assured me through her new friend, Sylvia Plath, that she’ll be back as guest commentator as soon as she’s able.

-In the meantime we’ve been forced to take on as Emily’s temporary replacement, Norman Mailer. He must sense that he’ll not be chosen in the next few brackets, and so has time on his hands, is eager for any way to gain the spotlight. (Also upset that the “OPA! protesters have switched their attention to the Big Four instead of him.) Or, as he explained to me,

“I reluctantly concluded that with the inevitable reaction against maleness, of which I’m of course the embodiment, as well as being the essentially pre-eminent literary figure of his time, I, Mailer, caught in this really predictable and shitty existential crisis of identity, this primordial mentality truly American, American-ness sense of existential angst– dread, dread!– the mountains of critical response to this figure Mailer who’s always stood independently for this instinctively pure essence of writer, I say essence because it’s so anally basic, this maw of warm shit excreting itself from the corpus of the art, the community, expressing itself against this symbol of male willness, I, Mailer. . . .”

This isn’t what he said exactly. I’m giving a shortened facsimile. If I were to post his full explanation for why he’s signed on as a substitute commentator, I wouldn’t have enough space.

Even Mailer senses the electricity in the streets. That something, as early as tonight, is about to break. We hope to be able to give a report, as well as an announcement of the #2 seeds, within the next several days.

The Press Conference! Part I

THE ALL-TIME AMERICAN WRITERS TOURNAMENT

microphone at lectern

THE PRESS CONFERENCE

As we prepare to introduce the four bigs– #1 seeds– to the expectant crowd, we look around for our newly booked commentator, Emily Dickinson (“Emily D”). We notice she’s been cornered by Norm Mailer (our other commentator candidate), who while clenching and unclenching his fists and talking nonstop is explaining to Emily why he should’ve been a commentator, as well as a top seed and up on that stage. We think, Emily! Emily D is very talented and very cute, but she’s not very worldly.

The Four are invited to step to the microphone to make a few remarks.

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Hem fishing

Ernest Hemingway: “It was an honor. It was a surprise but it was also an honor. It was not a surprise at all but he said it was because he didn’t want people thinking he wasn’t humble. It was easier to be humble. He didn’t want to think about not being humble.”

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Walt Whitman

(Editor’s note: Whitman has quite the contingent of young poetry groupies in the audience.)

Walt Whitman: “You who celebrate bygones! I, habitan of a cemetary in Camden, treating of himself as he is in his cups, Chanter of verse, I project the history of this contest, the great pride of this man in himself, Cheerful– knowing this man Walt Whitman will win.”

(Enthusiastic applause.)

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melville profile
Herman Melville: (Melville declines the opportunity to speak, but instead remains in his chair on stage, puffing on a pipe and observing the proceedings like a bemused sea captain surprised to be on land.)

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Mark_Twain_young other

Mark Twain: “I had a lurking suspicion that Ernie Hemingway was a myth, that there never was such a fantastic personage. I asked old Wheeler about him, and he said it reminded him of the infamous Jim Hemingway last seen flexing his neck muscles around the barroom stove in Algonac due south and over a bridge from here. Big-bearded big-headed Jim backed Wheeler into a corner then sat him down and reeled off a monotonous narrative about flyfishing in a river not ten miles from this very spot. A fishing story, we used to call it. The one that got away. But no fishing story like the one Herm Melville on this stage has been known to tell.” (Twain takes a puff from his own pipe.) “Fishing stories! You propose to defeat this old riverboat captain with fishing stories. Good luck.”
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(Editor’s note.)

In this town’s local barroom afterward, three of the Big Four stand around a stove telling yarns. Across from me, Emily D sips from sherry in a glass, the sherry the color of her eyes. “I taste a liquor never brewed,” she confides.

I’ve known many poets and they’re a strange bunch.

“What do you think of this event so far?” I ask, gesturing toward where Mark Twain holds court, where even Melville joins the group and silently listens, four giant men in the small wood room– Mailer trying to butt into the conversation rises barely to the others’ shoulders. Emily gazes around the little tavern.

“Such a delirious whirl!” she says.

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“Part II” will be a quick Press Conference wrap-up. Stay tuned.
 

Writers Removed from Consideration Part I

ALL-TIME AMERICAN WRITERS TOURNAMENT

jane smiley

(Pictured: Jane Smiley.)

From New Pop Lit‘s Editor-in-Chief.

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Eudora Welty.  Big rep. Something of a folk writer. Corny dialect. I could never finish reading “Why I Live at the P.O.”

William Kennedy.  There was a brief William Kennedy vogue fifteen (or 25?) years ago. Remember it? It was not enough for him to make the Tournament.

Booth Tarkington.  Booth’s stock hasn’t just declined in the past 80 years. It’s fallen off a cliff.

Jane Smiley.  Jane Smiley is one of those faux-populist “literary” writers who write about farms or colleges and imagine they’re far more witty or profound than they are in reality. (For witty satire of a college, see Kingsley Amis.) If there is such thing as middlebrow, Jane Smiley is middlebrow. Plus, Jane Smiley has an irritating name. Out!

Bernard Malamud.  Malamud has a fairly big name in literary circles, and did write one highly readable, close-to-great novel, The Natural. This is balanced by this editor having been assigned Bernard Malamud’s The Fixer once in an English course. The two books are examples that occasionally a novelist is best off writing about his own time and milieu– what he knows. Next!

Paul Harding. Sounds like an old-time NFL football player. Ever hear of Pulitzer Prize Fiction-winner Paul Harding? Neither have we.

Wallace Stevens. Insurance guy who wrote poems. A good poet with an esteemed reputation among insider poetry circles, but with no real following among the general public. (Are there Wallace Stevens Poetry Festivals somewhere?) With only 12-16 slots for poets to fill, “good” isn’t good enough. We may as well start culling the herd now.

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jane smiley speaking

But what do you think?

(Second photo: Jane Smiley speaking.)

 

 

A Side Issue

antifa 3

ALL-TIME AMERICAN WRITERS TOURNAMENT

PROTEST STATEMENT

(NOTE: This is a side issue to the Tournament itself– one we debated discussing at the site. We ultimately decided to run this, in the interest of putting as many happenings as possible connected to the Tournament on the record. Take it for what it’s worth.)
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New Pop Lit has received a bad-quality video on dvd. It shows a petite young woman in a mask, dressed in black, reading a statement. Behind her with arms folded stands a tall male, similarly dressed and masked. They are supposed representatives of the activist group upset with our Writers Tournament. The poor quality of the sound and image prevents it from being shown here.

One hour after receiving the video, an envelope was dropped off at our headquarters. The envelope contained a statement whose words correspond, more or less, to those of the young woman shouting on the video. Here’s the text of the statement:

“We piss on your Tournament and your privileging of white male writers Ernest Hemingway and Walter Whitman, and the archaic notion that you can privilege anybody by combating writers against one another as if they were gladiators to feed the Hyper-Capitalist Spectacle that is America now. We say, ‘NO MORE CRUELTY!’ We shit on your privileging of American anything (There Is No Amerikkka!) which reeks of borders, fascism, intolerance and patriarchy. We will NOT participate in this clown show! We will be engaging in a sit-in and hunger strike at the auditorium, hall, saloon, cafe or other where the ‘Tournament’ is to be held– as soon as someone figures out where the ‘Tournament’ is to be held. The sit-in and hunger strike will continue until our demands are met. We will at a future time submit those demands to the capitalist pig asshole media, if this ‘event’ occasions any media. Preemptive shutting down of potential hate events before they occur is our only defense. WE WILL NOT TOLERATE THIS! Thank you.”

The printed statement was signed, “OPA! Outraged Protesters Against.”

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To date the first two tournament selectees, Mr. Hemingway and Mr. Whitman, have no comment regarding this matter. They have yet to arrive in town.

(All nominations for Tournament candidates can be sent to newpoplitATgmail.com)

 

First Two #1 Seeds

ALL-TIME AMERICAN WRITERS TOURNAMENT

Here are our first two #1 seeds:

EH 7018P

A.) Ernest Hemingway. Possibly the biggest writer persona ever. In his day he was a bigger figure than movie stars and pop singers. Instantly recognizable. Larger than life. A giant part of the culture. He destroyed the effete image of literature. He had popular best-sellers but was also a critical darling. He defined, at least for a while, the American voice– and transformed the English language. Even the Brits weren’t the same after Hemingway. In America, the hard-boiled detective genre sprang from a single Hemingway short story. (“The Killers.”) Hemingway began as an underground writer, the artistic creation of Sherwood Anderson, Gertrude Stein, and Ezra Pound. He took from his mentors, synthesized their ideas and made them accessible to the world. It’s impossible for us today to understand how revolutionary was the early Hemingway sound. Though some of his work today sounds dated, his best stuff holds up– his “Macomber” story one of the most exciting tales ever written; his top novels, “Sun” and “Farewell to Arms” striking reads also.

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whitman middle-aged
2.) Walt Whitman. More than any other single writer, Walt Whitman created the American voice and justified a distinctive American literature very different from its Old World models. Beyond that, he transformed the art of poetry on a world scale. Many consider him the father of free verse. Not just his art, but his persona was distinctively American. “Leaves of Grass” was every bit as revolutionary an artistic happening as anything Hemingway wrote. Or, for that matter, Allen Ginsberg and the Beats, who would’ve been impossible without Whitman blazing the trail before them. Whitman was the first hippie. He lived during a time when poetry was popular, and he was the most popular poet. The American character is a mix of several influences. Whitman is surely one of them.
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 THE NEXT two #1 seeds will be announced in a few days. There will be 16 brackets of four writers each. Remember that we’re allowing ourselves one week to change our mind about our announced choices for the tournament, depending on feedback, disappointment or outrage. . . .

Format and Criteria

nfl draft board

FORMAT FOR THE ALL-TIME AMERICAN WRITERS TOURNAMENT

There will be sixteen seeds, sixty-four writers altogether. A writer will have to be good simply to make the tournament. Brackets will be set up, starting with four #1 seeds, then the #2 seeds, and so on. Then, the writers begin squaring off mano a mano. We hope to enlist volunteers to choose between, say, Henry James or Allen Ginsberg. The winner moves on. This continues until we have an overall winner.

BRACKETS

We had to decide if the brackets will be arbitrary, or split up between, say, regions, or using other classifications, such as a Poetry bracket, Playwright bracket, and so on. We decided against the latter, simply because the history of American literature has been dominated by the novel. It would be unfair to leave out novelists who’ve had a huge impact on the civilization and culture in favor of poets or playwrights who’ve had little impact at all. Is this fair? No. But the best poets and playwrights will be represented. We’ll also listen to, and post, all arguments pro and con.

CRITERIA

What places a writer above another? We’ve sketched out what we believe are the main points, but welcome more.

A.) Influence/Importance/Relevance. Meaning: impact on America and the world. Not simply on the literary art, but on culture itself. Has the writer’s work become part of the culture?

B.) Popularity. Not the main point, but a major point.

C.) Persona. The writer’s persona is part of the writer’s impact. We refuse to take the narrow view of writers that, say, New York editors take, where the work is assessed in a vacuum. Literature has thrived in this crazy country when the main writers have been larger than life. Their very presence has promoted the vibrancy of the literary art.

D.) Critical Standing. This means, the quality of the work itself. Has the body of work stood the test of time? Is it considered world class? Are significant ideas expressed in the work? Great themes relevant to people anywhere? Does it have impact beyond the historians and critics? Does the person’s writing convey energy or emotion and create excitement for the literary art?

E.) American. Is the writer and the work authentically, recognizably, quintessentially American? Is he or she representative of the land, this nation, and the nation’s voice? To some extent, writers should be of their place and time.

The writer’s mastery of form, and of various forms, can be considered as well. The forms include Novels, Poetry, Plays, Short Stories, Essays, and Criticism.

What are we leaving out?