In 1922, a writer for the Observer commented: “No book has been more eagerly and curiously awaited by the strange little inner circle of book-lovers and littérateurs than James Joyce’s Ulysses.” After declaring Joyce to be a man of genius, the writer said, “I cannot see how the work upon which Mr Joyce spent seven strenuous years, years of wrestling and of agony, can ever be given to the public.” The objection then, or the fear, was that the book would wreak havoc on the morals of the general population. Today, the concern is not so much with scandal as with difficulty: annotated versions abound, prefaces fall all over themselves to caution readers. Yes, this is difficult. No, you might not finish. Please buy the book anyway. Give it a go.
In this episode, Jacke talks to Mike about the experience he had slow-reading Ulysses online in a community of readers. What were the challenges? What were the payoffs? How was it for him, and for his fellow hashtaggers? It’s a question to ask as one might ask someone after a war or pandemic or trip from a dangerous mountain. How was your Ulysses?
Virginia Woolf has long been celebrated as a supremely gifted novelist and essayist. Less well known, but important to understanding her life and contributions to literature, are her efforts as a publisher. In the decades that she and her husband operated the Hogarth Press – starting with a hand-operated printer they ran on their dining room table, cranking out one page at a time – they published some Modernist classics, including works by Virginia and The Waste Land by T.S. Eliot. In this episode, Jacke takes a look at the decision to buy the press, the effect it had on Virginia’s life and writing career, and the very first book the Woolfs put out: Two Stories, featuring Leonard’s short story “Three Jews” and Virginia’s “The Mark on the Wall.”
Is this the greatest man vs. nature story ever? Hard to say. But it just might be the purest.
Kicking off a new HOL feature, producer Emma chooses a short story for Jacke to read and discuss – Jack London’s classic “To Build a Fire.”. Get somewhere warm and let your mind drift to the snowy Yukon for this gripping tale of man vs. nature and man vs. himself.
“All you have to do is write one true sentence,” Ernest Hemingway said in A Moveable Feast. “Write the truest sentence that you know.” And so he did: the man wrote thousands of sentences, all in search of “truth” of some kind. What does a “true sentence” mean for a fiction writer? What true sentences did Hemingway himself write? And how much of this is in the eye of the beholder?
In this episode, Jacke is joined by Mark Cirino, the host of the One True Podcast and author of the book One True Sentence: Writers and Readers on Hemingway’s Art, for a discussion of Hemingway, his quest for true sentences, and what that has meant for dozens of contemporary readers. (Special bonus: Mark and Jacke roam through Hemingway’s works before choosing their own true sentences.)
Very few writers have had the influence or importance of Langston Hughes (1902?-1967). Best known for poems like “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” “I, Too,” and “The Weary Blues,” Hughes was also a widely read novelist, short story writer, and essayist – and his promotion of Black people and culture became central to the cultural explosion known as the Harlem Renaissance. In this episode, Jacke takes a look at Hughes’s early years, including his childhood, adolescence, and the poems Hughes wrote in his teens and twenties, as he forged his identity as a writer in the face of often intense criticism.
It’s a paradox that has bothered Shakespeare’s fans for centuries: the man was as insightful into human beings as anyone whoever lived, and yet his own life is barely documented. This combination of literary genius plus biographical uncertainty has spun off a number of mysteries – including the question of how exactly Shakespeare came to know the things that he did.
In this episode, Jacke talks to investigative journalist Michael Blanding, author of In Shakespeare’s Shadow, about a renegade scholar named Dennis McCarthy’s theory that Shakespeare may have drawn upon a previously unknown source – the lost plays of Sir Thomas North – and how Blanding himself joined the pursuit of searching for evidence to support McCarthy’s theory.
For years, we’ve enjoyed talking to writers about the books they love best. In this “best of” episode, we go deep into the archive for three of our favorites: Jim Shepard and his youthful discovery of Bram Stoker’s Dracula; Margot Livesey and her love for Ford Madox Ford’s modernist classic The Good Soldier; and Charles Baxter telling us about his love for the poetry of James Wright. Enjoy!
Since the first publication of his six-volume magnum opus, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Edward Gibbon (1734-1797) has been ranked among the greatest historians who ever lived. What made his work different? Does it hold up today? And what lessons can a modern-day historian draw from his example? In this episode, Jacke talks with author Zachary Karabell about Gibbon’s inspiration, influence, and legacy.
ZACHARY KARABELL is the author of numerous books, including Inside Money: Brown Brothers Harriman and the American Way of Power and The Leading Indicators: A Short History of the Numbers That Rule Our World. He is also the founder of the Progress Network at New America, the president of River Twice Capital, and the host of the podcast “What Could Go Right?”
Additional listening suggestions:
321 Thucydides 285 Herodotus 36 Poetry and Empire (Virgil, Ovid, Horace, Petronius, Catullus) Help support the show at patreon.com/literature or historyofliterature.com/shop. The History of Literature Podcast is a member of Lit Hub Radio and the Podglomerate Network. Learn more at http://www.thepodglomerate.com/historyofliterature.
In our last episode, Jacke looked at the life of celebrated Japanese poet Matsuo Bashō (1644-1694), the widely acknowledged master of haiku. In this episode, Jacke looks deeper into the nature of Bashō’s best works, organizing them into some loose categories and offering some thoughts on haiku in Bashō’s world and ours.