The History of Literature #389 – Thomas Pynchon (with Antoine Wilson)

389 Thomas Pynchon (with Antoine Wilson)

“A screaming comes across the sky. It has happened before, but there is nothing to compare it to now.” Such is the opening of Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow (1973), the novel that won the National Book Award but repulsed the Pulitzer Prize Committee. Pynchon’s special blend of paranoia and postmodernism made him one of the hallmark authors of the Cold War era. In this episode, Jacke takes a look at Pynchon’s life and works, then is joined by a contemporary author, Antoine Wilson (Mouth to Mouth), for a discussion of his writing process and his recent trip to Pynchonland.

ANTOINE WILSON is the author of the novels Panorama City and The Interloper. His work has appeared in The Paris ReviewStoryQuarterlyBest New American Voices, and The Los Angeles Times, among other publications, and he is a contributing editor of A Public Space. A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and recipient of a Carol Houck Smith Fiction Fellowship from the University of Wisconsin, he lives in Los Angeles. His website is:

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The History of Literature #373 – Roald Dahl

373 Roald Dahl

Born in Wales to parents of Norwegian descent, Roald Dahl (1916-1990) grew up to become one of England’s most famous writers. Although Dahl was an accomplished writer of short stories for grownups, he is today known best for his well-loved children’s novels, including Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Fantastic Mr. Fox, BFG, Matilda, and Danny, the Champion of the World. Dahl also had a fascinating past as a WWII fighter pilot, an intelligence agent, and the husband of the Hollywood star (and Academy Award winner) Patricia Neal. What secrets were in his past? What do we find unsavory about him today? And what kind of impact do his books still have?

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The History of Literature #366 – Evelyn Waugh (with Phil Klay)

366 Evelyn Waugh (with Phil Klay)

The English novelist Evelyn Waugh (1903-1966) was regarded by many as the most brilliant satirical novelist of his time. A self-proclaimed curmudgeon, for whom the Conservative Party was not conservative enough, Waugh converted to Catholicism in his twenties and never looked back. He resisted change in all areas of life, expressing the opinion that he wished he had been born two or three centuries earlier. At his best, he was darkly funny, using his misanthropy like a bright light to illuminate cracks and flaws in society’s foundations, and using his pointed wit to skewer anyone and everyone he encountered, including himself. At his worst, he was a crazy quilt of what George Orwell called “untenable opinions,” with all the racism and anti-semitism one might expect from a self-satisfied man of his era. In this episode, Jacke is joined by author Phil Klay to discuss Waugh’s religion, military background, and his novel A Handful of Dust in particular. The two also discuss Klay’s award-winning fiction, his writing process, what it means to be a Catholic writer in Waugh’s time and our own, and the new podcast American Veteran: Unforgettable Stories, which Klay hosts.

PHIL KLAY is a veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps. His short story collection Redeployment won the 2014 National Book Award for Fiction and was selected as one of the 10 Best Books of 2014 by The New York Times. His debut novel, Missionaries, was released in October 2020 with Penguin Press.

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The History of Literature #360 – FMK Shakespeare! (with Laurie Frankel) | Tolstoy’s Gospel (with Scott Carter)

360 FMK Shakespeare! (with Laurie Frankel) | Tolstoy’s Gospel (with Scott Carter)

It’s a good day for cooking! First up: Scott Carter, author of the play Discord: The Gospel According to Thomas Jefferson, Charles Dickens, and Count Leo Tolstoy, joins Jacke for a look at the gospel as updated by Leo Tolstoy. Then novelist Laurie Frankel (author of One Two Three) stops by for a special Shakespeare game. Hope you enjoy!

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The History of Literature #359 – Forgotten Women of Literature 6 – Eliza Haywood and Fantomina | PLUS Keats’s Letter on Shakespeare and “Negative Capability”

359 Forgotten Women of Literature 6 – Eliza Haywood and Fantomina | PLUS Keats’s Letter on Shakespeare and “Negative Capability”

During her stormy and mysterious life, Eliza Haywood (1693?-1756) was one of the most prolific writers in England. Her “amatory fictions” were unapologetically sensationalistic, earning her the opprobrium of her mostly male critics. But in spite of being described (some might say slandered) by Alexander Pope in his Dunciad, Haywood kept going – acting, writing, translating, publishing – and set many trends even as she bridged the divide from one era to another. Today, she stands as a remarkable figure, with novels like Fantomina demonstrating her willingness to explore themes of gender politics, sexual passion, and contemporary scandals long before it was common to do so.

PLUS Jacke takes a look at one of the most famous letters in literature, Keats’s epiphanic description of Shakespeare’s “negative capability,” including the painting Keats had just gone to see.

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The History of Literature #212 – Special Quarantine Edition – Pale Horse, Pale Rider by Katherine Anne Porter

As the world deals with a pandemic, we turn to one of America’s greatest (and least appreciated) writers, Katherine Anne Porter, and her masterpiece, Pale Horse, Pale Rider, a short novel that tells the story of Miranda, a newspaper woman who falls ill during the 1918 flu pandemic (also known as the “Spanish flu”), and the love of her life, Adam, a soldier who is headed off to the Great War.

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Covering James Joyce

Yes! Our James Joyce podcast episode smashed our record for one-day downloads.  A reminder that you can get the History of Literature Podcast for free on iTunes and Stitcher.

Question for the Day: Which James Joyce cover is your favorite? (Or is your favorite not here?)  Let me know in the comments!


St. Augustine in Translation

We’re getting a lot of great feedback on our latest History of Literature episode, #44 – The Confessions of St. Augustine. One of the great things about Augustine is how readable it is: even though the arguments are deep, the prose is never dense, especially in a very good translation.

Several of you have asked which translation I would recommend. I’m not an expert, but I’m happy to offer my thoughts. I’ve previously relied on the Penguin editions, and those are usually pretty safe bets. This time I looked at several before deciding on the one I did, which is by Maria Boulding.

(Clicking the image will take you to the Amazon page.)

Translations can be excellent in different ways. Boulding’s is fresh without being anachronistic, readable without losing the Latinate rhythms and flavor. I think it does Augustine justice. I read a few passages yesterday on the podcast, but for those of you who want to examine it on the page, here’s an excerpt to see what you think:

Great are you, O Lord, and exceedingly worthy of praise; your power is immense, and your wisdom beyond reckoning. And so we humans, who are a due part of your creation, long to praise you—we who carry our mortality about with us, carry the evidence of our sin and with it the proof that you thwart the proud. Yet these humans, due part of your creation as they are, still do long to praise you. You stir us so that praising you may bring us joy, because you have made us and drawn us to yourself, and our heart is unquiet until it rests in you.

Good, right? And here’s a simpler one, leading up to the famous “pear-tree incident”:

Beyond question, theft is punished by your law, O Lord, and by the law written in human hearts, which not even sin itself can erase; for does any thief tolerate being robbed by another thief, even if he is rich and the other is driven by want? I was under no compulsion of need, unless a lack of moral sense can count as need, and a loathing for justice, and a greedy, full-fed love of sin. Yet I wanted to steal, and steal I did. I already had plenty of what I stole, and of much better quality too, and I had no desire to enjoy it when I resolved to steal it. I simply wanted to enjoy the theft for its own sake, and the sin.

That’s a simple, workmanlike paragraph. But those are the ones that need to get you through. Think of a translation as a trip to the Himalayas: yes, you can expect the peaks to tower above you, but you also should pay attention to the way the valleys are going to connect one base to the other. Boulding’s translation gave me the full, rich landscape, and I was happy to spend some time there.


Listen to Episode #44 – The Confessions of St. Augustine: Play in new window | Download (Duration: 47:54 — 33.2MB)

Augustine and the Art of Not Yet


“I had been putting off the moment when by spurning earthly happiness I would clear space in my life to search for wisdom; yet even to seek it, let alone find it, would have been more rewarding than discovery of treasure or possession of all the world’s kingdoms, or having every bodily pleasure at my beck and call. I had been extremely miserable in adolescence, miserable from its very onset, and as I prayed to you for the gift of chastity I had even pleaded, “Grant me chastity and self-control, but please not yet.”

Good news! Tomorrow we’ll release our long-awaited podcast episode on St. Augustine and his amazing book, The Confessions. You can prepare by revisiting our episode on The New Testament or our episodes on Greek tragedy.

Greek Tragedy? Yes indeed. It turns out that St. Augustine was a great chronicler of tragedy. He went to see them, wept and mourned, and then agonized over what it all meant.

I have to say, I recalled reading Augustine with interest many years ago, but this time I was simply blown away. His intellectual honesty, his precision in describing his struggle, his humor, his humility…it’s a great, great book.

A fun episode – make sure you subscribe on iTunes (or Stitcher) so you don’t miss a thing!

The History of Literature Episode 41: Reading The New Testament as Literature (with Professor Kyle Keefer)

Charles Dickens called the New Testament “the very best book that ever was or ever will be known in the world.” Thomas Paine complained that it was a story “most wretchedly told,” and argued that anyone who could tell a story about a ghost or even just a man walking around could have written it better. What are the New Testament’s literary qualities? What can we gain from studying the New Testament as a literary work? Professor Kyle Keefer, author of The New Testament as Literature – A Very Short Introduction, joins host Jacke Wilson to discuss what it means to read the New Testament as literature.


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!

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