The History of Literature Episode 5 – Greek Tragedy (Part One)


How was tragedy invented? Why was it so popular in Ancient Greece, and what power does it have for us today? Using the discussion of tragedy in Aristotle’s Poetics, author Jacke Wilson takes a look at tragedies from ancient times to Shakespeare and Breaking Bad.


Looking Ahead to Another Good Week!

Hello! I hope everyone has recovered from Thanksgiving and is looking forward to the rest of the holiday season and the new year. It’s a time to rejoice (or read-joyce, as we had going last year) and to not be lonely.

It looks like another busy week here in Jackeland!

On Monday, we’ll have an episode on Greek tragedy on the History of Literature podcast. Why did so many people in ancient Greece go to these things? How did tragedies work? What (if anything) do we gain from tragedy today? We’ll take a look!

(The podcast is up to #4 on iTunes list of New and Noteworthy literary podcasts. Onward and upward!)

On Tuesday, we have a special tribute to the criminally underrated Edward Gorey.

On Wednesday…oh boy, Wednesday is going to be fun. I’m not going to say anything else: just a surprise. It’s a post that would put a smile on Scrooge’s lips. Skip everything else if you must, but don’t miss Wednesday.

On Thursday, Gar returns from his vacation to help with another Restless Mind Show. (That’s another show I do on the same podcast feed as the History of Literature podcast.) You’ll be able to stream it right from here, of course.

On Friday, we take a look at Alfred Hitchcock and Adele (yes, the two of them are analyzed together), and on Saturday, we’re running a tribute to classical scholar Mary Beard. Jeez. Sometimes I have to scratch my head and think, Jacke, what the hell are you doing? Is there any other blog who has a schedule like this? No wonder I have a small but devoted band of followers. There are only so many crazy people in this world. Well, not crazy. Eclectic.

Okay, that’s enough for now! Go see Creed, it’s a good movie, we need more movies like it.

Have a great week, everyone!

Quick Links:


Buster Keaton and The Art of Showing (Not Telling)

Every aspiring creative writer hears it at some point:. It’s one of those great phrases that sound cryptic and meaningful and take a while to puzzle out.

Yes, yes, young grasshopper, I see you’ve written some words on the page here, and I see you’re trying to do something like write fiction, a craft I myself have mastered over many difficult years. Ah, well, you are cute, young grasshopper, I admire your young and precious energy, but you have so much to learn. So let me speak in my greatest guru voice and give you a secret that may take you years to unpack, you who thought you knew so much just from reading fiction. And here’s the advice, young grasshopper. “Show, don’t tell.”

Or as it’s usually phrased, in creative writing guidebooks:


And as it’s usually heard by the aspiring author:


I have my issues with this phrase, as everyone who cares about writing fiction should.

Let’s put it this way: used well, it’s a helpful little reminder of something important. When it’s misunderstood, it can produce barbarisms.

And…it’s probably been misunderstood as often as it’s been used well.

Here’s what it means: as you’re steaming along with your narrative, and a character turns up, you can say something like “X was very clever” and leave it at that, but a) that’s not much fun for the reader and b) might not be very persuasive. Let’s see some cleverness! Show us the clever!

That doesn’t mean you can never say “X was very clever.” That very well might be the best way to introduce that character. Or there may be times when your narrator is fully capable of telling rather than showing. Telling can often be the best way to get something across – the fastest or most efficient. You might be setting up some nice narrative irony with the telling. Maybe you are going to save the showing for something else.

Go find Jane Austen. Leo Tolstoy. Herman Melville. There will be plenty of telling in there, along with all the good showing.

Here’s Jacke’s variation:

Show when it makes sense to show, tell when it makes sense to tell. But make sure you’re thinking about the reader’s experience.

(Oh, and don’t name your character X. Unless that’s the best name for your character. See how this works?)

Now, everything I just said is really just a way of introducing a video I should have just shown. Buster Keaton and the art of the sight gag, a highly enjoyable video by the great Tony Zhou. Nota bene the part where Keaton discusses visual jokes vs. jokes conveyed through title cards. But really, just sit back and enjoy. We don’t spend enough time admiring artists like this one, but we’re the better for it when we do.

Onward and upward!

A Jacke Wilson Thanksgiving. What Could Possibly Go Wrong…?

Good morning, everyone! Today is a day for thanks. I’ll get to that in a minute.

So I had to run through some old 100 Objects posts for a potential new publishing project. I know I’m not the first to say that it’s not easy rereading your old writing. I’m a writer, it comes with the territory. But in addition to being a writer, I have the added bonus of being Jacke Wilson.

As longtime readers will know, that is not an easy job.

So I get to paragraphs like these three, from The Burger Car, and I just start to shiver.

I can reach back to the jingling sound that reminds me of a prayer wheel and transports me to Tibet, or the smell of soy and garlic in a sizzling wok that pulls me back to the night markets of Taiwan. The hot sand under my feet that summons forth the island off the coast of Thailand, and the nights I spent listening to Billie Holiday and watching sunsets with a bartender named Cy. Or the forkful of grilled salmon that brings me to the bed and breakfast in Alaska, or the sip of San Miguel that returns me to the nightclub in Manila, or the froth on the pint of Guinness that drops me back in the deep smoky basement of the Pub in the basement of Ida Noyes.

I did all that, that was me! I have other memories to draw upon! Indeed, a whole portmanteau! My mind does not need to stay trapped in the car I don’t like, dwelling in the gloom of my own weakness and stupor!

I start up the car and honk the horn out of sheer excitement.

I shiver, I literally shiver, because I’ve forgotten exactly what’s coming, but I know, I sense, I feel the doom. I watch poor Jacke as I would a character I’m fond of but am glad I’m not. He’s Charlie Brown running at the football, over and over, and I’m glad I’m not him. Except I am him! And except the football is not a metaphor for life, it’s life itself. It’s life, it’s life, it’s life….


(Read the whole story here: A History of Jacke in 100 Objects #8 – The Burger Car)

BUT today is a day to rejoice, because in spite of all that, things are still pretty good. Yes, even in Jackeland, where football coaches are intensely fallible, blog posts are disastrous, father-son bands break up, and spelling bees are thrown.

Why? Because of you, my friends. The readers and listeners who keep me going. It’s not too much to say I look forward to these exchanges. I know from your comments (and emails and all the other feedback) that I’m not alone. There’s a football out there, and we’re forever running toward it, and life will pull it away and we’ll all go flying through the air and land flat on our backs. Yes, it’s true, and you know it as well as I do. But we’ll do all that together, and that makes all the difference in the world.

I’ll be back on Sunday night with a preview of our week, and of course on Monday with another History of Literature episode. Enjoy your weekend!

Restless Mind Show #7 – Literature and Loneliness


On the eve of a holiday, author and host of the History of Literature podcast Jacke Wilson considers the consolations that  total immersion in literature can provide.


Sensual Sappho

Wow, what a great response to the Sappho episode of the History of Literature podcast. An all-time record for downloads in a day! You can catch up on the Sappho episode (or any other episode) by subscribing on iTunes or Android or Stitcher, or just typing “History of Literature” into whatever podcast app you use.

(Let me know if that doesn’t work – most of the big sites and apps are carrying the History of Literature, but if they aren’t yet, I’ll make sure they do.)

Need more Sappho in your life? My podcast isn’t enough! Hey, I’m not offended! In fact, I’ll join you and say we all could use a little more Sappho in our lives. You might want to check out this essay by the always excellent Edith Hall in the always excellent New York Review of Books. A sneak preview:

In about 300 BC, a doctor was summoned to diagnose the illness afflicting Antiochus, crown prince of the Seleucid empire in Syria. The young man’s symptoms included a faltering voice, burning sensations, a racing pulse, fainting, and pallor. In his biography of Antiochus’ father, Seleucus I, Plutarch reports that the symptoms manifested themselves only when Antiochus’ young stepmother Stratonice was in the room. The doctor was therefore able to diagnose the youth’s malady as an infatuation with her. The cause of the illness was clearly erotic, because the symptoms were “as described by Sappho.” The solution was simple: Antiochus’ father divorced Stratonice and let his son marry her instead.

Plutarch’s story invites us to wonder if the relationship between Sappho and erotic symptoms is entirely straightforward…

Thanks to the holiday, we’ll be back on Wednesday this week with another Restless Mind Show (on the same podcast feed as the History of Literature). And on Monday, we’ll have our first installment in the incredible inventiveness and creativity of Greek Tragedy, perhaps the pinnacle of theater and the theatrical experience. Top five, no question. It’s worth spending some time to figure out why.

Until then, may you enjoy a faltering voice, burning sensations, a racing pulse, and fainting and pallor. Hopefully brought on by Sapphic sensuality with your sweet partner and not whatever strain of flu is going around this winter.

Or if your sweet partner isn’t available, or if the two of you need a little assistance, let’s just go with this:

Onward and upward, everyone!

History of Literature Episode 4 – Sappho


Ancient Greece viewed her as Homer’s poetic equal; Plato referred to her as the “tenth muse.” As a fearless and lyrical chronicler of female desire, she had a profound impact on literature and society. Author Jacke Wilson takes a look at the genius of Sappho, the first great female writer in the history of literature.


Jacke News: Sappho, iTunes, and more

Hello, everyone! I hope you’re finishing up your weekend well and heading into the holidays with great gusto. Here’s what to expect this week on the Jacke Blog.

First, we have some news to share! Our new podcast, The History of Literature, has been selected as a New and Noteworthy podcast on iTunes, and we’re currently listed at #14 (in the Literary Podcasts category). Not bad for our first month!

(And look out Grammar Girl… we’re coming for you!)

You can subscribe to the History of Literature on iTunes or check us out on Stitcher. Or just go to whatever podcast directory/resource you use and type in “History of Literature.” Let us know if we don’t come up!

Need a place to start? Our episode on Homer has been very popular.

On Monday we’ll release our episode on Sappho, where we take a look at a remarkable poet and the amazing society that enabled her to exist. We had our sneak previews of Sappho with our look at What Sappho Really Sounded Like and at Sappho, the Ghost Town of Western Washington.

On Wednesday I’ll be back with a special holiday episode of the Restless Mind Show. Our topic is literature and loneliness.

Also coming soon: a look at a Jacke Wilson Thanksgiving and a special tribute to Buster Keaton. A week from Monday we’ll be back with an episode on Greek Tragedy. Fun times around the Jacke Blog!

What am I thankful for? For you, readers! And for you, listeners! Yes, you! This lowly, humble podcaster (ahem, #14 on iTunes, ding ding ding ding ding, come on Jacke, stay lowly, stay humble) is very grateful for all of your views, clicks, listens, comments, emails, voicemails, and other warm wishes. As I mentioned when we started this whole thing, we are in this together. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Onward and upward!


Sappho’s Ghost in Western Washington

Courtesy of WikiCommons
The Poet, as depicted on a wall in Pompeii

Hello! We’re hard at work getting ready for the Sappho episode of the History of Literature podcast, which we’ll release on Monday. Brilliant reader MAM posted this comment:

Did you know that Sappho influenced the name of what is now a ghost town in Western Washington in the late 1800’s?


There was a community of people reading Sappho in Western Washington in the 1800s? Not just reading her, but naming their town after her?

I would have guessed Shakespeare or Plato. Maybe even Ovid. Dante, okay, right. The Bible, of course. Homer. Or the nineteenth-century greats: Dickens, Eliot, Austen, Trollope, Thackeray…

But Sappho? Who’d have guessed? This required more investigation!

As it turns out, the guy behind all this is exactly as you’d expect: a little crazy, a little passionate, somewhat charming, somewhat roguish.

The town [of Sappho] was founded by Martin Van Buren Lamoreux, who left St. John, Kansas in 1889 with 8 of his 10 children, his second wife and her 3 children from a prior marriage. Arriving in Seattle, some of the party settled on Lake Union, but Lamoreux, thinking that land worthless, set out for the Olympic Peninsula.

The land around Lake Union was worthless? Okay…he got that one wrong. In a pretty huge way.

But admiring Sappho? He got that one right!

Stop back on Monday to find out why!

Cezanne’s Mystery Woman


What does a genius painter reach for when drafting a love letter? Why, the back of one of his canvases, of course. Who has time to look for paper when you are this tormented by love?

I saw you, and you let me kiss you, from that moment I have had no peace from profound turmoil. You will forgive the liberty that a soul tormented by anxiety takes in writing to you. I do not know how to describe to you that liberty that you may find so great, but how could I remain oppressed by this dejection? Is it not better to give expression to an emotion than to conceal it?

It’s the painter’s only known love letter, written when Cezanne was 46. And we know nothing about the woman except her effect on Cezanne.

Maria Popova has more of the fragmentary story.

Image Credit: Still Life with Bottle and Apple Basket, Paul Cezanne (1894)