Wednesday, December 12, 2018

4 Great Pennsylvanian Writers

These four writers all spent significant times in their lives in the state of Pennsylvania, the state where I myself grew up. Three of these writers were born in the state and all four spent significant periods living in the state. Other great writers with ties to the state include Louisa May Alcott, Willa Cather, Lois Lowry, Jerre Mangione, Donna Jo Napoli, Philip Roth, and Ben Lerner (incidentally, my former neighbor!).

Lloyd Alexander - The Chronicles of Prydain 
Alexander wrote novels for children and young adults that created coherent, character-driven narratives out of legends and mythologies, also writing original fairy tales with a whimsical sense of humor, not unlike the work of Natalie Babbitt. His most beloved series, The Chronicles of Prydain , is based on the Welsh Mabinogian. The books follow Taran, an apprentice pig-keeper who becomes a hero, Eilonwy, a princess under an enchantment more like Ronia the robber's daughter than the Princess Aurora, and Gurgi, a creature without a history. They are pitted against the Horned King and his army born of the Black Cauldron. These books are high fantasy of the most satisfying variety: Prydain is a rich, fascinating world and the little band of protagonists are marvelous imaginary companions. Highly recommended, especially for devotees of Tolkien and Dungeons and Dragons.

Pearl S. Buck - The New Year
Most of Buck's novels are set in China, where she grew up, or elsewhere in Asia; this particular novel is a recasting of the Madame Butterfly story, set in Korea during and after the Korean War. Soonya, however, is not a self-sacrificing blossom who wilts with the loss of her overly idealized love. When the American soldier who left her pregnant comes back to claim the child, since his American wife can't have children, he returns to a mature, world-weary woman and not a naive girl. Her decision is no less fraught: the possibility of her child growing up fed, clothed, and educated in a prosperous country that fights its wars abroad is the same possibility that she will never see her child again. Buck excels at depicting connections across the cultural divide between Asia and America, connections that both alienate, but also form complex bonds of affection, need, and desire.

H. D. - HERmione
This imagist poet is both the twentieth century's heiress to the ancient Greek and Latin poetic traditions, from Sappho to Catullus, and a modernist influenced by Pound and Freud, who also anticipated the fragmentation of genre that would intensify with post-modernism. This experimental novel departs from the opaque lucidity of her poetry and is more reminiscent of the poetry of Edna St. Vincent Millay or the early prose of Virginia Woolf. In stream-of-consciousness style, H. D. narrates the inner world of Hermione 'Her' Gart, a character who is widely read as autobiographical. For Her, life presents a series of traps and escapes that both transform into each other, like shifting magnetic poles, or blend together seamlessly, until she is trapped by her escape, and escapes by means of entering a trap. Self-discovery is as much failure as success; agency and passivity are rarely so distinct as we usually believe. A modernist masterpiece that still doesn't have the recognition it deserves.

John O'Hara - Ten North Frederick
O'Hara is, in some ways, a typical mid-century American male writer, whose books, set in New York, California, and his invented Pennsylvanian town of Gibbsville, reflect the vision of white America seen in Hollywood movies, though with far more sex and unpunished immorality. However, O'Hara unlike writers like Norman Mailer, Henry Miller, and John Updike, who seem to be his obvious compatriots, was perfectly capable of writing complicate, sympathetic portraits of women, including middle-aged and elderly women and women who indulge in affairs and enjoy sex. In this novel, a family saga, Joe Chapin's life, along with those of his wife, children, and mistress, implode as he pursues a political ambition that demands the appearance of stable moral conservatism, no matter what seamy goings-on that appearance might hide.

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