I can’t speak for anyone else, but the New England Review represents so much of what I hope to be when I grow up. In addition to choosing high-quality fiction, poetry and creative nonfiction to represent the present and future of literature, the New England Review also features scholarly material that puts the writing of the past into context.
Beginning college students often make a mistake when cracking open scholarly books; they skip the introduction and go to the first chapter. The typical introductory chapter of a scholarly book provides a powerful distillation of the arguments made in the whole book. This issue of NER contains two excerpts from recent scholarly books. Richard J. Smith’s “How the Book of Changes Arrived in the West” traces the methods by which the Eastern tome became an influence on Western thought. Smith goes far beyond listing translators; he isolates the many points through history that the Book has come into contact with scholars across the Western hemisphere. A book that was seen by eighteenth-century Jesuits as a confirmation of their faith eventually became a counter-culture inspiration for creative people such as Bob Dylan and Philip K. Dick.
Joseph Fruscione discusses the rivalry between Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner, two men who “saw each other as dueling artistic siblings, [and] painted each other as worthy competitors . . .” We all love a good literary feud; how could Hemingway resist getting his own swipes in after Faulkner answered a question by ranking the best contemporary writers as Thomas Wolfe, himself, Dos Passos and then Hemingway? Further, Faulkner said that Papa “has never been known to use a word that might cause the reader to check with a dictionary to see if it is properly used.” Those are indeed fighting words!
Matthew Vollmer’s “Keeper of the Flame” offers an eye-catching first sentence: “On Thanksgiving my father asked me if I wanted to visit the Nazi.” Vollmer’s father was the Nazi’s dentist and brought his son along to see the Nazi’s secluded home. The first floor of the immaculate house seemed normal enough (aside from the small swastikas hidden in the design of a set of china). The basement was another story, filled with relics of the Third Reich. Vollmer grapples with a few interesting dilemmas. Was it his moral obligation to tell the Nazi that his views were unacceptable? Should Vollmer’s perception of his father change because he considered the Nazi a friend?
In his poem “Father, Son,” C. L. O’Dell considers that special relationship in something of a new light. O’Dell paints with words and captures the sad moment in which the boy realizes his father is not, in fact, a lower order of god. While completing a project by pouring concrete, the narrator of the poem, the excited son, points out that “Romans used volcanic ash, and lime.” The father says that, “things aren’t supposed to last forever,” a truth that causes one of the first of many emotional wounds that will change the young narrator’s life.
Paul Plagens’s work of creative nonfiction takes the reader into “The Ding Tank,” the part of the jail that holds the “prisoners with mental or emotional problems.” Plagens, a successful musician, had a heroin problem that resulted in his loss of freedom for a time. The tone of the piece is relatively matter-of-fact, allowing the anecdotes to evoke emotion on their own. Particularly suspenseful is the section about Rocky, a hardcore criminal who seems to prefer the power dynamic on the inside to that beyond prison walls. Rocky sees that Plagens isn’t accustomed to prison life and shows him the ropes for reasons Plagens can’t discern. “The Ding Tank” is representative of the rest of the writing in the journal, bringing the academic modes of thought to universal stories to which we can all relate.