Soul on Ice is comprised of different writings—essays, letters, and musings by Eldridge Cleaver, a former Black Panther Ministry of Information party leader. He writes about who he was, what he did, and why. He does not hide anything: his past actions, his past anger, his past crimes. He also writes about who he becomes, and from Folsom Prison he writes about being 18 years old in 1954, the “crucial turning point in the history of the Afro-American—for the U.S.A. as a whole—the year segregation was outlawed by the U.S. Supreme Court” (Cleaver, 3), which was when he started serving a sentence for possession of pot. This decision shaped what it was like “to be black in white America.” (Cleaver, 3)
Roxane Gay‘s latest book, Hunger, opens up with “Every body has a story and a history. Here I offer mine with a memoir of my body and my hunger.” (3). Gay writes of being fat in a world that shames and demeans people for taking up space. And she looks at her body’s history: how did she get where she is? Why does she weigh so much? What happened to create this body? It wasn’t merely eating. It wasn’t just not taking exercise or being weak or lazy. I could not handle some of the physical challenges she’s endured. Hunger is not a self-help book, it’s not a feel-good book, nor is it a change-your-life book. And while it is not any of those things, this book is everything to me. This book is a writer opening up about her past, exposing the very things so many of us don’t talk about, this book made me feel connected to her in a way very few authors do.
Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote Between the World and Me as a letter to his fifteen year old son growing into a black man in America. This letter, is 152 pages long. Because this work feels precisely like a letter, it results almost in guilt while reading it because you feel all the love and pain and anguish and anger that Coates experiences and expresses to his son. These are emotions that aren’t generally shared when writing about American history.* Books about history can induce anger, frustration, and guilt, but those are experienced by the reader, and not outright expressed by the writer. Why? Because we were told that history is what actually existed. We do not learn until later that history alters by who is telling the history, who is the writer, the “academic.” And so these “history” books we read growing up, are very one-sided, and of course, emotions are removed, falsely assuming objectivity. But how are they objective when they are only telling one version?
Years ago the Huntington Library hosted an exhibition about Bukowski. I flew to Los Angeles, as a friend promised to take me. Fast forward to that Saturday night, 2am, and drinks are still flowing. Then to 4am, when we get back to her place. Around 4:30, I fall asleep, and I know, there will be no Bukowski exhibit for me. I wake up, early, anxious, excited, hopeful even though I know how the day will play out. My friend and her boyfriend, late risers, a late brunch, joined by her friends that I don’t know. And no Bukowski for me.
This last week, I was visiting another friend in Glendale, California. She is another fellow bibliophile, also with her MA in English Literature. We had only two and a half hours to explore the Library, the American Art Collection, the European Art Collection, the Japanese gardens, the Chinese gardens, the desert gardens, and the rose gardens. We ended up spending the bulk of our time in front of famous books. Those books that you read about, the ones that are always featured in crime thrillers, where the shady book dealer brokers a deal with the devil to get the crooked rich buyer a folio that no one’s ever heard of because it’s the only one in existence because no one will allow it to be mass produced.
Sada and I stared in awe. We quietly shouted to one another, hitting one another, gesturing, exclaiming, “LOOK, LOOK at THIS!!! It is here, it is AMAZING!!!” Over and over. We gestured, whispered, and exclaimed.
There was a First Folio of William Shakespeare’s plays, printed 7 years after his death. This is the primary source for his text. When academics argue, this is the source they go to. Sada and I both had to write a thesis (hers on Bret Easton Ellis, mine on Salman Rushdie), and we both were thinking about what it would be like to access similar resources available for our research. Again, Sada and I stood and stared. Stared and stared some more.
There is also an early manuscript of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Unfortunately they had to put it in storage so there was an exact facsimile, written on vellum. And yet still, we were in awe.
Some notes by one of America’s most celebrated writers, Mark Twain. Everyone loves Twain, and he’s one of those writers that seems to belong to everyone, so I never considered I would see his writing. I imagine his stuff is spread out all over, and locked away from the public; available to only the most serious academic.
Some notes by Percy Bysshe Shelley. I saw the Keats-Shelley apartment in Rome. And once again, to see his handwritten notes was beyond words. To see his art in human touch, not just printed in mass produced books. To see his heavy stroke, the deep depths of his ink, and his passionate scratching out was incredible.
And finally, poor Jack London. He was worried about his manuscript The Sea-Wolf burning in his home, so he placed it in a fire-proof box, which sadly was destroyed in the San Francisco fires of 1906.
Museums generally offer art for the public to view. I love looking at paintings, sculptures, digital art, etc, but my favorite art of all by far, is the written word. I love that it can be mass produced and shared with the public. I love that it is the simplest form of art and also the very hardest. To transform someone’s thoughts, to be able to influence a person’s perspective, and get into their mind, well, to me, that’s the most amazing art of all. There is a noble beauty in a story that remains the same over and over and over, regardless of publisher, nevermind the book cover, forget the passage of time. The story remains and lives on forever. No one need worry that the single piece will be destroyed. There are other copies. Someone can reprint it. But then, to be able to see the writer’s form, their penmanship, or typing, or organization, that is part of their craft as well. I want to see what their process was, I want to explore more, and most often, their old manuscripts are kept locked away, for posterity, for future academics. I understand, but part of me wants to say, what about the current readers? Don’t we get to see these early drafts of art?
The Huntington Library fulfilled all those desires. I saw things I never thought possible. And the room itself that they are all stored in was magnificent. Dark panelling; an old safe that was open, empty, and visible; leather benches, long, long, heavy, dark drapes all set the tone for the perfect literary experience.
So excited here, and overwhelmed from everything I’ve seen.
Sada and I walked the gardens, and sat briefly on this bench. A couple walked by and offered to take our photo. It was a quiet moment after such a glorious day.
Maya Angelou, (I realize and recognize she is Dr. Maya Angelou but I grew up reading her as Maya Angelou) died yesterday and I am truly affected by her death. I read her in high school and I quickly became obsessed with her and read everything she had written. Former President Bill Clinton nominated her as our nation’s poet laureate, and she read a poem she wrote for his inauguration. Regardless of what he does, for the rest of his life, I will always respect and admire his decision to ask Angelou to write a poem for the United States. He acknowledged how important art, and specifically, Angelou is to our country.