Mary Roberts Rinehart and War

On Pitt’s Special Collections blog a few weeks ago they featured translations of novels by Mary Roberts Rinehart. I would say that almost no one currently knows who Mary Roberts Rinehart is, but in the early to mid-twentieth century she was a well-known popular novelist. Her most widely read works were mystery novels, but she wrote in a variety of genres. Legend even has it that Batman was inspired by one of her plays.  There is a really great literary biography of her written by Jan Cohn in the 1980s but that is pretty much the only scholarship out there on her. Therefore, I was glad to see her being covered by the Special Collections blog.

One of the fascinating aspects of Rinehart’s career is the fact that she traveled overseas during World War I to write about the war. She was not trained as a journalist, but she was a popular enough writer that she put pressure on the editor of the Saturday Evening Post and convinced him to send her oversees to report about the war. This was unusual because of her gender, age, and place and position in society. In the literary biography, Cohn writes that the idea that Rinehart would go visit the front was “extraordinary, preposterous” (78).  When the war broke out Rinehart was “thirty-eight years old, married, the mother of three children” (78).  Rinehart, however, was determined and wrote that she did not “‘intend to let the biggest thing in [her] life go by without having been a part of it'”(78). So she did go to the front and wrote dispatches from the front lines which eventually were collected into a nonfiction book, and then later she used her experience to write a novel, The Amazing Interlude,  about a young American who feels called to the Belgian front.

I wrote about Rinehart’s trip to Europe in a paper I wrote for the SSAWW conference in November. The panel was about women writing war a subject I also wrote a little bit about with Shelli Homer for United States Studies Online. Find parts one and two of the posts here and here.

Even though women have written extensively about war and even though more women are writing about direct combat experience, when we talk about war writing we almost exclusively frame the experience in terms of men. An example I used in my paper that Shelli found for the article was a 2014 essay by George Packer for the New Yorker. Packer was specifically interested in the writing of soldiers who had directly experienced war. What a trained eye might quickly notice about this piece is that Packer mentions no women. He does not write about women who served in war, such as Iraqi veteran Kayla Williams, and he does not mention American women writers who couldn’t serve in war but experienced it as war correspondents or volunteers on the front lines.

Rinehart is one of many writers neglected in such formulations.

One of the most intriguing parts of Rinehart’s nonfiction work is when she disrupts her narrative to introduce texts from German soldiers into her writing. For example, she writes of a postcard that she saw from a dead German soldier. It was a card that he had received from his wife, and it had been found on his body after he died. Rinehart quotes the note in full in her text. And then she sums up her feeling about the card and all of the soldiers that left their families to go to war. She writes that she found it all “very tragic and sad and disheartening.” Rinehart spends a fair portion of her narrative trying to report on what she sees rather than commenting on it at length. However, it is after these narrative interruptions where she sums up her general despair about the state of war. She also writes of a German soldier whose journal she read. The soldier died from a shelling in the middle of writing in his journal. Rinehart quotes the section of the journal right before he died. He wrote “The situation here is still all confusion; we cannot think of advancing—.” According to Rinehart that is the last thing that was written in the journal. She quotes these German men not to give a sense of the “other side” or try to remain neutral. Rather the texts from the soldiers disrupt her narrative in a way that echoes her experience of trying to understand the situation and finding no clear narrative in what is happening. She writes that one of her big takeaways from the experience is that “war is a series of incidents with no beginning and no end.” Her narrative without a straight trajectory from start to finish emphasizes her inability to impose an arc on what she is finding and responding to.

In her fiction derived from these same experiences, she creates a much clearer arc from start to finish but still leaves the reader with many gaps and silences that work in a similar way as her nonfiction. For example, she refuses to tell the reader the last name of the main male character because he is a spy who regularly crosses into German territory. It would be too dangerous to reveal such information even though, of course, these details are all made up. The entire novel has a very impressionistic quality. She sketches details and scenes, but leaves the reader to fill in many details that aren’t about the female protagonist, Sara Lee, or the work she is doing feeding soldiers.

Part of the reason for the impressionistic aspects of other parts of the novel is Rinehart’s desire to make Sara Lee her focus. Rinehart writes that the story of Sara Lee is not “a tale of the wounding of men” (63). The novel, in fact, is a lot about wounded men, but what she is suggesting is that the voices that are elevated in her work are ones that are not always heard from in war narratives. The importance of this for Rinehart is not only to represent women’s voices but to also represent how women are shaped by and are shaping experiences of war.

Lee Rumbarger writes about women writing from the home front during war that these tales “insist on women as participants in their time” (4). Rinehart uses her nonfiction and fiction to write both expansively and intimately about war and tells of the expanding spaces that women were presented with because of the war. Rinehart does this in her own narrative and also to an even greater extent in the novel. When the character, Sara Lee, returns back from her trip abroad she finds that she is stifled by the experiences in her hometown, especially the relationship that she has with her fiancé, Harvey. When Sara Lee comes home she has a “terrible feeling of being fastened in” by her life (105). Before she started her journey to the front she had “resigned [herself] to being tucked away in a corner and to having no particular outlook” (4). Sara Lee thrives more when she is at the front serving soup to the Belgian soldiers than she ever did, or ever could have even imagined when she was at home. Sara Lee, in fact, ends the novel by breaking her engagement and returning to Belgium.

As just this bit of evidence shows Rinehart wrote intriguingly about war and her experiences overseas. An exploration and emphasis on Rinehart and this kind of work in war literature will, hopefully, shift the paradigm away from views of war writing which rely on outdated understandings of what it means to write about war.




A Short Note on “The National Labor Tribune”

My journal article on Pittsburgh’s labor newspaper, “The National Labor Tribune,” officially exists. See pictorial evidence!
CPwJ2dVUkAIaJlv.jpg-thumbCPwJ2YoUsAA6RDE.jpg-thumbThis newspaper has been cited a lot as evidence, mostly in works about the history of labor and/or the Homestead Strike, but, as far as I know, this is the first article solely about the “National Labor Tribune.” My article deals with the men who wrote into the paper, but I am working on a presentation for the Society for the Study of American Women Writers right now that does a little more digging into the women who also read and wrote to the paper.

The newspaper is not currently digitized, so one (me) still has to slog through microfilm to do anything with it. I don’t really mind this, but I fear that the fact that this newspaper and many other historical newspapers from Pittsburgh and western PA are not digitized is causing the region to be left out of a lot of scholarship. So much of our research relies on items that have been digitized. And, for example, there is only one Pittsburgh newspaper on “Chronicling America.” This is bad for people who care about Pittsburgh, but it is also detrimental to those studying newspapers and print culture in the U.S. in the nineteenth century. I predominantly have anecdotal evidence right now, but Pittsburghers in the nineteenth century at least liked to talk about how many newspapers and newspaper writers were in the city. Also, the 1880 census shows that Pittsburgh had twice as many newspapers as similar cities of its size. I think there is a lot more to be done on Pittsburgh and newspapers, but the work would come a lot faster if there was more access to historical newspapers online.

Crochet, Creative Outlets, and Academia

None of these people are me. Via looking4poetry.

None of these people are me. Via looking4poetry.

In high school I was a majorette, and while that has little bearing on my life right now, I was reminded of it when I read this recent piece by Anne Curzan on the Lingua Franca blog at the Chronicle of Higher Education. In the post, Curzan describes the tendency for academics to think they need to limit their outside activities if they want to be considered “serious academics.” Curzan explains what is wrong with this attitude and cautions against perpetuating it. This piece made me pause because I have noticed in the last year or two, as I came out of the tunnel that was my graduate education, that I had slowly lost touch with a lot of the sports and hobbies I used to participate in and enjoy. I was always what we call “a well-rounded individual.” In high school and college, I was involved in academic activities and also played sports and joined lots of clubs. However, if you had asked me a year ago what my hobbies were I would have said, “Uh, hanging out with my cat?” And while my cat is truly excellent, he is not a hobby. It was never a conscious choice to slowly shed my hobbies and many of them I would have outgrown anyway but not having enough ways to channel my energy was draining.

Luckily in my last year of graduate school, I made friends with our department’s fiscal officer, and she taught me and a few other department members how to knit and crochet. I still have only the very basics of knitting down, but I took quickly to crochet. Learning to crochet not only gave me an outlet to expend some energy and enjoy the health benefits you can often achieve from such activities, but it also taught me a lot about my work patterns. I’m not learning how to make things in order to glean lessons about my writing and work habits—that seems to go against the point of having a hobby—but it is an added benefit of having other focuses in my life.

What I have learned most from crocheting is that mistakes are part of the process and that they should be embraced rather than avoided. There is a part of me that wants to get things right the first time—wants to cut the mistakes off before they even happen. This tendency has always been with me, but it has gotten worse as I have gotten older. I was even hesitant to start learning to crochet because I was nervous about being bad at it. Turns out you can’t really be bad at crochet. You can only be where you are and where you want to be. Plus, mistakes are important in handmade goods. It’s okay to make mistakes. It is actually completely necessary to do so. Mistakes can be undone or they can be incorporated, but they are part of what makes working on a project worthwhile. A machine can make something perfect, but it can’t make something handmade.

I made these.

I made these.

If you are working on a crochet project and things aren’t going well, you can start over completely. Or you can pull stitches out and backtrack. Or you can just keep going. This is true of writing and other kinds of intellectual labor too, but working on a crochet project is so much more tangible than writing. Yes, you can see the progress of writing in terms of the words that exist on the page, but you can’t quite hold it in your hands the same way. Each stitch cannot be pulled apart or examined. You can’t take it downstairs and say to another person in the house, “Hey, look at this!” Maybe, we should all start printing out our drafts and making people take stock of them, not for the content on the page but for the fact that we made something that exists.

Bringing something into existence is one of the greatest benefits of a craft project, and another advantage to working on something concrete is that you can see the evidence that you are getting better. There is a steep learning curve at the beginning with crochet and then the progress slows down, but at every step of the way I can see how I am improving. My stitches are more even, and I am much better at actually having the correct number of stitches in the row. Again, I know that I am also always improving my writing skills, but it is hard to see that. The biggest gains I see in my own writing are when I look back at what I wrote years ago. From that perspective, I can see the leaps and bounds I have progressed in terms of organization and style. But I can see the changes in my crochet skills immediately. This helps me remember that with work and patience I am also growing in my writing.

I have also learned some things about my work habits that I need to consider changing from crocheting. For example, I love starting any kind of project. I want to prepare all of my materials and get started on whatever I decide to work on immediately. I will dive into my work and work vigorously on figuring out how to get going on a project. And then, I will stop. I won’t pick up the project for days or weeks or months on end. When I am moved again, I will take up the project in a similar spirit of intensity. I work on projects in very big chunks. For hours on end until my eyes cross, I will labor on a project. I will sit up late at night and stare at the computer screen until I figure things out. This is not to say that I don’t know better. I make my students tackle writing by slowing down their writing process. We plan, we draft, we move methodically from start to finish. I know I should follow this advice, and I am getting better at doing so. But seeing these patterns in places other than my writing has made me want to pay more attention to them in all of my work. It hasn’t really made me realize anything new—I knew these were my tendencies before, but a repetition of the patterns has made me want to learn how to recognize them quicker and find strategies for curtailing them.

Finally, and this is no surprise, but it was important to have it reinforced, taking a break from my work and allowing my thoughts to percolate have made me more creative. There is a lot of information available about how creativity works, but anyone who has had the most brilliant thought pop into their head in the shower, does not need to read the books to know that creativity happens when you are not trying to make it happen. I have been more productive in my writing, since I have found another creative outlet to focus on. I’m very grateful that I have learned to focus on other channels now, before I was completely burned out from writing. What are your hobbies, reclaimed or new, and how do they help you in your professional life?

Teaching without Expending all of your Energy: A Pamphlet

At the end of a long teaching day, I tweeted about needing a pamphlet to learn how not to use all of my energy in the classroom.

I decided to write this pamphlet myself. (Well, this isn’t really a pamphlet, but it seems like the kind of information that could go on one. If someone gives me the budget, I will find some stock photos, print out this blog, and fold it in threes.)

I’m teaching four classes this semester, which is the most I have ever taught, but even when I have taught two, I have had trouble controlling how much energy I expend in the classroom. I don’t use too little energy in the classroom. I use all of my energy for the day. At the end of the teaching day, I can often be found draped over the couch. Feel free to imagine me resting on any of these couches.daybed_web6

My friend, Alison Rutledge, described feeling like a “puddle of goo” at the end of a long day. And, yes, that is exactly it.

Even if we weren’t also trying to be researchers and fulfill service requirements, we would probably not want to spend the early evening hours in a stupor. It shouldn’t be okay to use all of your resources on teaching, so how do we dial it back?

I want to talk about particular strategies I plan to work on in the classroom to combat some of my energy drain, but I don’t want to do so before mentioning gender and emotional labor because they are important factors in these feelings I am observing. First, some of the exhaustion from me and my friends (everyone who responded to me about feeling the same was a woman) stems from the fact that male professors get higher evaluations as a result of being men. At least a part of my extra hustling is to make up for that gap. Of course, men also work hard to be good teachers but starting with a group of students who already assume you have the authority to be doing what you are doing must be just a little less draining. Additionally, many men approach their roles in the classroom differently in terms of how they connect with their students. Women are often viewed as caregivers and nurturers, and this perception acts itself out in the classroom. Students seek their female instructors for different kinds of attention than they do their male instructors. An essay by Holly Ann Larson in the journal Currents in Teaching and Learning illustrates this emotional labor by describing the work of teaching and interacting with community college students. As an example of the energy she spends on her students, Larson details the anxiety of having to telling a struggling student that she cannot turn in a paper late. This example succinctly showcases how much the interactions with her students affect her personally. Larson writes from personal experience but cites other research on this topic, including what is considered the premier scholarship on the issue of emotional labor Arlie Hochschild’s The Managed Heart

It’s important to address these larger issues, but I also want to note some strategies I will do in the short term to save my own classroom energy.

I know a few peo02RBF_COMBO1-master675-v2ple who have a quiet energy that draws people in. This kind of energy can work great in a classroom because it causes students to focus on you. I don’t have that energy; if I am being quiet, I look like Kristen Stewart, January Jones, and Victoria Beckham in these photos. I think they look fine, but we have been taught to read these expressions as “bitch face.” Partially for this reason, I have learned to use a more upbeat energy to engage my students. That energy is something I will maintain, but I am going to work on being quiet more. For me, this will take the form of 1) not over-explaining answers or directions 2) letting student comments sit for a minute before responding 3) generally slow down.

Since I sent that above tweet, I have been observing where my energy goes in the classroom and have noticed that I will over-explain directions or instructions. If my students are looking at me like they don’t understand something, instead of giving them a minute to absorb it, I will launch into several different alternate explanations for it. I think that this is helpful but honestly it just might be more confusing. A principle from one of the professors in my master’s program should be of use here. I’m not exactly sure if I am getting the phrasing right, but he used to say that he believed in “embracing the pause” in the classroom. He was specifically referring to the pause between questions that are asked of students and the time that the first person begins to answer it. I would like to apply this concept more broadly and use the pause to slow down the pace of my classroom a bit. I will also try to talk slower. I talk fast and move fast. Yes, I am one of those people that passes other people on the sidewalk. Just being more conscious of the pace of my talking will help expend less energy and probably lead to my students also following me a bit more. If I can maintain it, it looks to be a win-win for everyone.

Those are my energy-related ideas. I will let you know how well I follow through with them. What is your advice for yourself for better managing your emotional resources in the classroom?