A few updates on events surrounding the release of my chapbook (On the River, Down Where They Found Willy Brown) and some info on how to obtain a copy for yourself, if you’re so inclined:
– The e-book version is available right now on Amazon for the bargain price of 99 cents. If you’re a Kindle user, check it out here.
– I’ve confirmed that the paper pamphlet version will be sold through the online store of Edition Solitude–which you can find here. Well, you can’t find it there now–unless you’re reading this in the future–but it will be there soon. Probably in March.
– Promotional materials are starting to come out for the “Quotes & Appropriation” event Darren Keen and I (and many others) will be a part of at Akademie Schloss Solitude later this month. There’s more information on the event here and here and here, if you’re interested. Here’s the flyer for the event.
– A chapbook release party has been organized, and the good news is you’re all invited! The other good news is that I talked Darren into stopping by Omaha on his way to SXSW, so we’ll have our entire reading/music/film/photography presentation ready to share to a local audience too, which is important. Join us on Wednesday, March 11, at Pageturners Lounge (5004 Dodge Street/Omaha). Here’s a link to the Facebook event page, with all the details. This will be the easiest way to obtain a copy of the paper version if you’re in the Omaha-area, as we’ll have copies for sale at the event, with all proceeds benefiting the Urban League of Nebraska.
Here’s the cover image for my forthcoming chapbook (“On the River, Down Where They Found Willy Brown”) that will be published by Reihe Projektiv/Edition Solitude later this winter, in late February, to be exact.
This will be the first writing I’ve had published about the Omaha Race Riot of 1919 and the lynching of Will Brown at the Douglas County Courthouse. I’ve posted here many times on the subject, one I’ve been researching and writing fiction about for over five years now. I’m both excited and nervous to finally be sharing this work with audiences. Hopefully it’s found to be pertinent and well-considered work.
The chapbook will be released in conjunction with my upcoming presentation at Akademie Schloss Solitude as part of their two-day, cross-discipline workshop titled “Quotes and Appropriation.” DJ Darren Keen and I have been hard at work on our opening night event that will feature readings from the chapbook and a DJ set from a melange of music that was important to the writing of the chapbook, plus a presentation of photographs and film from my research. It will be a good time.
If you heard me read at the Key West Literary Seminar in January, Solitude Nacht in July, or in December at the Fair Use Reading Series in Benson, this is some of the same material. It includes what I read then and quite a bit more.
If you’re interested in acquiring a copy of the book, the best way would be to just stop in at Akademie Schloss Solitude in February and pick up a copy at the event. If Stuttgart is a little far afield, other options will be available thereafter, hopefully in both hardcopy and digital editions. More on that to come.
Many thanks to Todd Seabrook (editor/designer with The Cupboard) for his work on the cover and book design. He’s great. If you’re looking for someone to work with on a chapbook project, he’s your guy.
A quick note that “Minstrel Show, or The Lynching of William Brown” is to be performed as a reading next Sunday, January 11, as part of the Douglas County Historical Society’s Second Sunday lecture and performance series. The play was written by DCHS researcher Max Sparber and takes for its subject the 1919 Courthouse Riot in Omaha. The play retells the events of the riot from the perspective of two itinerant performers.
Originally produced in 1998 by the Blue Barn Theater, and performed in the rotunda of the Douglas County Courthouse in addition to the Blue Barn, “Minstrel Show” has since been performed around the country to rave reviews. An actor from the Blue Barn will participate in the reading on Sunday, and Max Sparber will take questions afterwards.
There will be more of a formal announcement for all this soon, but I’ve been itching to share about a project I’ve been working on as part of my association with Akademie Schloss Solitude, so here you go.
This upcoming February I’ll return to Germany to participate with other fellows and guests of the Akademie in a two-day, cross-discipline workshop titled “Quotes and Appropriation.” I’m very excited to return to Stuttgart for this, as its a culmination and redirection of the book project I’ve been working on the past five years.
In addition to panels and workshops, there will be an opening night presentation called “Omaha Uninitiated: Music, Cultural Artifact, and Historical Event in the Recreation of Civic Trauma.” This project contains three elements–a set of readings from On the River, Down Where They Found Willy Brown, a novella based on events surrounding the Omaha Courthouse Lynching of 1919 (more on this below); a presentation of photographs and video that have been important to the creation of On the River, and my related full-length novel The Uninitiated; and a DJ performance by Darren Keen.
It will be amazing to bring five year’s worth of research and writing on this topic to Germany, and I’m particularly excited to see what Darren comes up with for the music component, what will be a mashup and cross-fertilization of music from the World War I era that was important to the creation of the novel (ragtime, propaganda music, American folk, jazz) mixed with music from Nebraska in the last fifteen years.
The final part of all this is publication of the aforementioned novella (On the River, Down Where They Found Willy Brown) by the Reihe Projektiv imprint of Edition Solitude. If you heard me read at the Key West Literary Seminar in January, Solitude Nacht in July, or last Friday at the Fair Use Reading Series in Benson, that is some of the same material. Todd Seabrook (editor/designer with The Cupboard) is working on the design and I’m pretty excited how it’s turning out.
It took a while, but I was finally able to track down the exact address (and approximate location) of Tom Dennison’s estate house! More accurately, Gary Rosenberg, Douglas County Historical Society archivist, was able to track it down. Thanks, Gary and the DCHS!
Tom Dennison was first listed as living in the house in 1931, just three years before he died. He didn’t live there long, and his involvement in Omaha politics and crime was all but through by then. This was his retirement home. He raised wire-haired terriers on the back acres. He lived there with his daughter, Frances, and her husband, Vernon Ragan. This was during Prohibition. The house was surrounded by cyclone fencing, there were security guards, Dennison kept a sub-machine gun under a blanket on the seat next to him in his car. (It’s fascinating how Prohibition transformed the political machines of the early 20th Century (which mostly focused on gambling, prostitution, and government-centered rackets) into deadly criminal syndicates. In earlier decades, Dennison lived in the city (at 1507 Yates, among other places). He stood on the sidewalk and fed pigeons in the morning. They did a lot of bad things in those days too, but the machine never engaged in gangland killings until Prohibition. The Omaha Race Riot of 1919 is potentially a different matter altogether.)
Dennison remarried late in life, but his young wife, Nevajo Truman, never lived in the same house as Tom. She lived at 2201 Country Club Avenue with her mother. Tom would come by and visit most every day, but that’s as far as that went. Such a strange and sad sounding relationship.
Last year I hypothesized that Dennison’s house was put to new use as part of Marian High School–specifically the convent–but was disabused of that notion by Sister Joy (another devoted archivist, this time with the Servite Sisters). I wasn’t too far off, however. As told by my sister-in-law and Marian alumna, Sara Magnuson West, the house was still on the Marian campus until recently, although she didn’t remember if it served a purpose there. She remembers that it was back by the motherhouse, where the nuns live. Maybe it was torn down when the soccer field and athletic complex was built? Gary Rosenberg tells me that the building was demolished in 2006, approximately.
I’d greatly appreciate it if you could share any information, stories, memories, or rumors you might have of the building. Do you know what it was used for, if anything, by Marian? Do you know anything about the history of the house? Do you have friends or family who went to Marian, or taught there? Maybe they know something? In the picture above, the house appears to have been kept in good shape, there were security lights installed, the windows were maintained. I’d imagine this effort wasn’t for nothing.
If you know something about this house, please pass it along.
Just in case you missed it, here’s what happened on here in September:
-I took a few weeks off from working on the novel–using the time to clean up a few new short stories for submission–but am now reading and editing my first complete draft. It’s a lot of fun to read so far, seeing how things come together, and where they don’t.
-My review of Rahul Mehta’s Quarantinewas accepted for publication by The Iowa Review Online, and will appear shortly in the month of October.
-My review of David Philip Mullins’ Greetings from Below—previously accepted for publication by Prairie Schooner—has been scheduled to run in the Spring 2012.
Dispatch from The Hyphenates of Jackson County
“The noise was so frightening that Jacob couldn’t stand still. He had to move his feet, around in the crowd, or he felt like someone was going to take a shot at him. A block over there was a nervous cop who sprayed shotgun fire into the air whenever someone approached the car he guarded. The cascading noise of tumbling glass was punctuated by the fraught screams of woman in jeopardy. Or maybe that wasn’t it at all, what Jacob thought he heard. Maybe that was the sound of a woman’s prurient cheer as government windows were smashed to shards. There was the roar of voices, people fighting and being hurt. The flash of small arms erupting. The police sirens, their barking orders. The steam valve had been blown clean off and Jacob couldn’t stay where he was. He had to run into it, into the noise and fighting. He had to see everything, to document it in his mind. Speeding cars rushed into the crowds. Young men jumped on the sideboards of cars to swing around to where the action was. There were cars with Sicilians, Lithuanians, Greeks, Serbians. Once word of the melee spread, anyone who wanted to take a swing at a cop made a bee-line to Scandal Flats. A gang hijacked a streetcar and plowed into the mess, clanging the bell to announce their audacity. Teenage boys and musky husbands rushed out of houses with whatever hammer or club or bat they could lay hands on, and then hopped in a taxi to get there fast. A mechanical rumble filled the atmosphere. Roadsters and jalopies, homemade in Little Italy garages, swung recklessly around the blocks. They swerved to miss people and each other. Jacob couldn’t always see the cars but he could hear their pop-pop motors hammering at full throttle a block away, spreading echoes between buildings, echoes that bounced back from the high-rises of downtown. Trucks, commissioned or otherwise, hopped hot over the pavement to load up with furniture or produce or women’s clothes. Taxis slumped cockeyed and labored up the hills, packed full inside, passengers on the footboards.
“People shouted out to groups of strangers any news they heard. There was lots of talk in the mob about the smutty details of the rape—conjecture about Will Brown’s body in relation to the girl’s. They made him out to be huge, a towering man, arms like a gorilla’s, legs like a mule’s. They talked about Agnes Loebeck as if she was a little girl, pious and pure, like she only ever wore little white Sunday dresses, like she picked berries in a pristine field, like she’d never even heard of anything like a dick before.”
Personal Rejection Notes, Requests for More, and Other Nice Versions of No Thanks
My Antonia by Willa Cather. I really enjoyed this book, and can see why it’s often noted as Cather’s finest. I was surprised at how Modernist this novel is, it’s really quite innovative, as I’d always thought it was more of a Victorian, continental-style book for young women than anything. I stand corrected. A masterful work.
What’s interesting about My Antonia is how it manages to function as a perfectly inviting story for young readers, and how an adult willing to revisit it with a more developed critical eye can appreciate it for the subtly sophisticated narrative it truly is. In this regard, it’s not unlike a wildly different book, Alice in Wonderland. Great fun for kids, psychologically captivating for grownups.
-Some good news came along–announced in September, technically–as I’ve been awarded a scholarship to attend the 2012 Key West Literary Seminar and will participate in a workshop with the legendary Robert Stone.
-I announced in the same post that “These Things That Save Us” will appear in the premier issue of Conversations Across Borders.
“Lots of doughboys were in the crowd. This wasn’t all that surprising, as there were two forts nearby—Fort Crook and Fort Omaha. Jacob saw them around a lot then, in the year after the armistice—the doughboys come home, displaced from their jobs. There were plenty along the streets of the River Ward, husky kids still in uniform, their long green socks and puffy breeches, like football players lost from afield. An awful lot of them had what was called war neurosis. Some twitched, or struggled to keep their eyes open. Some had to constantly skim the palms of their hands over their faces and fuzzy, shaved skulls, like a cat preening itself. So many shuffled along in a painful, halting gait, or like they were slipping on ice, their whole bodies in spastic shaking. You didn’t want to think about what those suffering doughboys had seen or heard over there to make them out this way. The constant bombardments, the nerve gas, horses disemboweled on barbed wire barricades, the still-moving charred grist of a man caught by a flame thrower. There were doughboys who’d been buried alive when the man next to them stepped on a landmine, or in mortar fire, trapped when the four tons of earth thrown up in the explosion landed. There were the flyboys, crazy-eyed, sun-dazed, whose hands curled and shook, forever gripped on the timorous controls of their bi-plane’s yoke and machine gun trigger.”
Personal Rejection Notes, Requests for More, and Other Nice Versions of No Thanks
Electric Literature for “Shame Cycle.”
A Sport and a Pastime by James Salter. Often touted in recent publications as having the sexiest depictions of sex of any novel. It’s sexy, but not very erotic, if that makes sense. A good novel, though.
Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson. A classic that I love to reread. The stories “Godliness,” “The Strength of God,” and “Death” just really can’t be beat. Simply amazing work from who is really the father of the American short form.
The bulk of my writing work this summer has revolved around the Omaha Race Riot of 1919, a tumultuous and hugely traumatic event that I’ve been attempting to dramatize in Part 5 of my novel-in-progress, The Hyphenates of Jackson County. The riot, a well-known scar on Omaha’s history, one that is referred to from time to time in this space, was set off and punctuated by the lynching of Will Brown, an itinerant black worker who’d been accused of rape.
A lot of my previous work has dark themes, and I felt pretty well accustomed to portraying violence in my work. But I haven’t been as prepared for the kind of in-depth experience that researching and writing about a lynching has been. The darkness has kind of caught me by surprise sometimes–maybe because these bad things really happened, where the violence in my previous work was purely fictional. It isn’t something that can just be packed away at the end of the day, going through hundreds of horrific images with a mind toward depicting them, or getting inside the psyche of a character who would shoot at a hanging body and burn a corpse, or trying to imagine what that person who would be lynched might be thinking as their days and hours dwindled, before they were about to die in an infamous way.
Many of these things I researched happened in places I walk by everyday, as I work as a reporter at the Douglas County Courthouse, where the riot and lynching occurred. It was easy to be reminded, which, I suppose, was kind of the point of the project in the first place.
Most of my work was spent reading and re-reading local newspaper accounts of the riot–in microfilm copies of the World-Herald, Daily Bee,Daily News, and Monitor, the black weekly, from 1919. Some of the accounts are chilling. Eye witness and insider accounts. The riot built over the course of eight hours, so there was considerable news coverage. The Bee‘s headquarters was right across the street from the Douglas County Courthouse (where the Woodmen Tower stands now) at the epicenter of the riot. There are many photos, some graphic accounts. The news now is pretty tame in comparison to what it used to be like, in some ways.
Here’s how the Nebraska State Historical Society describes the lynching of Will Brown on their web site NebraskaStudies.org:
Brown ended up in the hands of the crazed mob. He was beaten into unconsciousness. His clothes were torn off by the time he reached the building’s doors. Then he was dragged to a nearby lamp pole on the south side of the courthouse at 18th and Harney around 11:00 p.m. The mob roared when they saw Brown, and a rope was placed around his neck. Brown was hoisted in the air, his body spinning. He was riddled with bullets. His body was then brought down, tied behind a car, and towed to the intersection of 17th and Dodge. There the body was burned with fuel taken from nearby red danger lamps and fire truck lanterns. Later, pieces of the rope used to lynch Brown were sold for 10 cents each. Finally, Brown’s charred body was dragged through the city’s downtown streets.
The Omaha Race Riot happened toward the end of what James Weldon Johnson coined as the Red Summer, a period of months following the end of World War I when race riots gripped numerous major American cities. At least forty-three African-Americans were lynched in America, from January to September, in 1919. This was at the height of the Great Migration, at the same time as white soldiers were returning from service in Europe to find their old jobs filled, at the same time as labor disputes and strikes were common and heavily reported on by the Yellow Press, at the same time as the U.S. government was using global tension to crack down hard on any dissident group it didn’t like, and there were many they didn’t like. It isn’t surprising that so much violence broke out. What surprises is the utter glee with which that violence was undertaken.
I found that the more I read about the lynching of Will Brown, the harder it was to go through the rest of the day–which is as it should be when confronting such examples of dehumanization. It became necessary to split up the work, to take days off, to take time working on unrelated short fiction, so as to not walk around with a diseased soul all the time. To not be gripped with outrage and sadness.
In Tel Aviv I started writing by hand on a legal pad–out of necessity there, as I didn’t want to lug around a laptop overseas–and continued the practice here at home. It’s been very helpful to do this, in a surprising way. Not only have I kept writing on the legal pad, but I’ve done so outside of the house too. It’s been so much harder to write inside our house than it is to write outside of it. At first I thought it was a product of being bored in my office–where I do almost all of my work, thinking that the trip to Israel helped to bust loose some cobwebs–but I believe it’s been of a distancing method from the material on an emotional level more than anything. On some level, I think, I’m not really all that comfortable bringing this stuff into my house. It makes me nervous, or guilty, to write about a lynching across the hall from the room where my daughter sleeps. But if I’m outside our home–on the patio, at the Joslyn Sculpture Garden, at the courthouse itself, or out of the U.S. altogether–then the material comes out. I’m able to write about it. It’s been kind of strange, and I hope the work come off okay.
I’m almost done with the book. I’d been saving this stuff for last, not sure exactly how one writes about it.
I’d like to share one of my online sources that I found particularly haunting–and that is the web site Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America. (There’s a book also.) The site features hundreds of photos of lynchings from around the country. What’s even more disturbing, is that most of these photos were on postcards sold afterwards, in what has to be the darkest bit of Americana. They were found at flea markets and in private collections. Apparently quite a few of them are out there still.
Also, here is a database listing of lynchings by state, in case you’re interested. Over the period of 1882-1968 the database covers, 4,743 people–of all races–were lynched in forty-one different states.
I’ve been working on a few new short stories lately, but the majority of May was devoted to beginning the initial drafting process for Part 5 of my novel The Hyphenates of Jackson County—the final section of the book. It’s all kind of a big mess right now, but it’s good to get into it. This always happens after I spend a couple months in revision, and this time was no different. The writing comes tough, in small amounts, 500-1000 words a day. It’s mostly blocking scenes, organizing notes, working out important descriptions and finding where symbolism might emerge. It takes a while to build some momentum and get a feel for how this part of the story should be told.
The narrative style I use is pretty steady throughout the book—third-person, through the point-of-view of my main character Jacob Bressler, although I’m experimenting with some brief first-person sections, too—but the main issue comes from the time scope of the book. The present-time thread of the novel takes place over three years, from 1917-1919, or starting when the United States declares war on Germany in 1917 and ending with the Red Summer and Omaha Race Riot of 1919. It’s not a huge amount of time for a novel, gratefully, although there is a lot going on, and it’s a challenge to account for the lost, un-narrated time between parts. Particularly in first drafts, I think I pay too much attention to what’s happened in the time gaps, instead of just getting into the action at hand. A lot of that will be eliminated soon enough, most of it in the initial edits. But it makes things a little clunky and difficult in the first draft.
Anyway, I’m really excited to be this close to finishing a draft of my first novel. I hope to be done with a rough version of Part 5 by the end of the summer. And since I’ve been editing the other parts as I’ve gone along, there isn’t a tremendous amount of work yet to be done, relatively. (I’ve been working on the book for about two years now.) If all goes well, I should have a decent draft of The Hyphenates of Jackson County finished by Spring 2012. Here’s hoping anyway. It’s not like I’m on deadline or anything.
In other news this past month:
-“The Current State of the Universe” is featured in the new issue of The Cincinnati Review. The story won their Schiff Prize for Prose last year, and I’m very excited to make it into this journal.
–Prairie Schooner accepted my review of David Philip Mullins’ Greetings from Belowfor publication. This will be my third review for PS, where I’m also currently a senior fiction reader.
-On cue, my second review for Prairie Schooner—of Nadifa Mohamed’s Black Mamba Boy—appears in our current summer issue. Check it out. It’s a pretty good one. (The issue, I mean. (The review is okay too.))
-In April we learned that Kwame Dawes was coming in as the new Editor of Prairie Schooner; in May we learned that Managing Editor James Engelhardt was leaving. James secured a position as the acquisitions editor for University of Alaska Press, and leaves for Fairbanks early in June. (Actually, today I think.) I owe a great debt to James for all he’s done for my editing and reviewing career, if I can call it that. James took me on as a reader after I received my MA from Creighton. I was looking to maintain some involvement in the literary world, and volunteering for Prairie Schooner has been a great anchor for me. After a year-and-a-half, I made my way up to a senior reader position; PS accepted my first book review, after some editorial help from James; my first two trips to AWP came with funding assistance from PS as well. I feel very grateful for what Prairie Schooner has done for me, in giving me the opportunity to work, particularly as someone who isn’t otherwise involved in the English Department at the University of Nebraska—and I owe much of that gratitude do James, I believe. Best of luck to him and his family on their Alaskan adventure! (And additional thanks for the fact that now, when I think of Alaska, I won’t think of Sarah Palin.)
-This blog featured a longish post about researching the lynching of Will Brown, and coming across a great NPR feature about the execution of Willie McGee and his granddaughter’s quest to find out the truth about him many decades later.
Dispatch from The Hyphenates of Jackson County
“Jacob returned to Omaha the same morning President Wilson arrived from St. Paul. It was only partly coincidental it happened that way. Jacob was planning on coming back to Omaha that week anyway, to visit his friend Reinhold Bock, and then he read in the papers that Wilson was to arrive by train to the Union Station early Monday morning, before giving a speech on the League of Nations that afternoon. A parade route was planned out where Wilson’s car would meander the city. When Jacob read this, he went down to the station in Lincoln and got a ticket to Omaha for the next morning. He bought himself a suitcase too, at the store there that sold them. It was something simple, with cardboard sides, that didn’t lock. It wouldn’t have to last forever. Jacob didn’t know what he was going to do—he had no plan for the next year, or month, or for the next three days for that matter—but he wanted to see the president. He’d find a spot on Scandal Flats and wait for Wilson’s car to pass by. It felt like it would be significant to do that. Jacob didn’t know why. He just felt he needed to see the man. He needed to see the man as a man, that was it.”
Personal Rejection Notes, Requests for More, and Other Nice Versions of No Thanks
West Branch for “On a Train from the Place Called Valentine”; Southeast Review and Conjunctions for “Attend the Way”; Missouri Review for “Shame Cycle.”
The Cailiff’s of Baghdad, GAby Mary Helen Stefaniak. An excellent historical novel about racism and confronting the Other in depression-era Georgia, with a detour to the more famous Baghdad in ancient times. Very well done.
Quarantineby Rahul Mehta. I really enjoyed this collection—which revolves around the lives and loves of second-generation, homosexual, Indian-Americans—and will be reviewing it.