Joyce Carol Oates: My Nobel Prize Nominee

Oates is the quintessential American author who writes prolifically about every aspect of American society past and present and every segment of society from the hardscrabble family living in a trailer in upstate New York to the affluent Mulvaney family falling on hard times. She explores the darker aspects of American history, the confidence man, the evangelical preacher, the tragedies in dynastic families, the violent and the gothic, the tawdry, the middle class and the forgotten. Her imagination picks themes from incidents like Ted Kennedy and Chappaquiddick or crime and violence rooted in American history and persisting today. She defines and analyzes superbly the national ethos in engrossing narratives and with memorable characters. During the past few months, I’ve spent time reading several of her novels that I missed reading in the past, among them her latest novel The Accursed, and rereading arguably one of her greatest achievements Blonde.

I haven’t read everything by Oates, but almost everything. The task is a big one considering to date she’s written fifty novels, thirty-one collections of short stories, fourteen non-fiction books , and countless reviews and articles. She is less well-known for her young adult, children’s and poetry books. And to date this significant writer of the century and the last century has been bypassed for the Nobel Prize! I wish to nominate Oates for her vast body of work marked by astounding imaginative gifts, range of themes, and depiction of the violent underbelly of society–all accomplished in deeply psychological, character-driven stories that encompass the gothic, the historical and the spectrum of classes from the low to the high.  Her capacity to portray struggling, working class men and women in itself is a monumental achievement. The beauty of her language and long descriptive passages, in which I revel, are breathtakingly vivid. Her plots and prose live up to the high standard set by the great Victorian novelists. She has contributed to the rich heritage of the gothic novel.

But how does Oates conceive her own literary purpose and style? She says her works are “homages to the past.” What interests her is the history of America and recent history. “I’m obsessed with places/settings” and “how people inhabit those spaces.”  She describes this obsession as the “phantasmagoria of personality.”  She expresses the mania of all writers in this statement: “I write to discover what it is I will have written.”

In her latest offering–The Accursed–the phantasmagoria of personality focuses on Woodrow Wilson, among other personalities in Princeton, New Jersey, at the time he served as president of Princeton University.  Imagined characters along with historical figures like Grover Cleveland, Upton Sinclair, and Jack London enter this story of a haunted community. The legacy of slavery and capitalistic greed along with a repressed sexuality haunt this pre-World War I American community. The gothic intensity of the novel displays Oates’ talents at their best. I am happy that The New York Times included it as one of the best books of 2013.

Revisiting Blonde immediately after reading her latest novel reinforces my appreciation of Oates’ genius for capturing the iconic in American culture. What better representation of the part Hollywood, fame and image-making have played in society than a fictional portrait of the sex symbol of the twentieth century–Marilyn Monroe–whose life is also a tragic story. Oates’ novel is nothing short of a masterpiece of the psychological novel. Again she uses fact and fiction to great purpose. Her portrayal of Norma Jean Baker in search of her authentic self and failing is also entwined with the search for a father she never knew. Illegitimate child of a studio employee, she marries older men she calls “daddy.” The marriage to the sports hero, Joe DiMaggio, fails as does the marriage to the famous playwright Arthur Miller. Oates does not name these famous husbands, but the reader knows who the men are.

Finishing Blonde, I wondered if Marilyn, besides sex appeal, showed any acting ability. I began to watch some of her movies. So far I’ve watched The Seven Year Itch and The River of No Return. She didn’t strike me as being any better or worse than big name screen stars of the day, and certainly, not worse than Robert Mitchum. She gave a creditable performance of the sexpot posing as an innocent, stereotypical dumb blonde in The Seven Year Itch, but Tom Ewell’s upstairs neighbor is not as dumb as she pretends just as Marilyn Monroe was not as dumb as some people may think she was. The movie actually had me laughing out loud. The outstanding performance in the movie was Tom Ewell’s. I will have to reserve further word on her acting until I see her other movies. But I already knew that Monroe was not dumb, for in my Edith Sitwell series of poems I imagined Sitwell’s actual meeting with Marilyn Monroe and wrote two companion poems, one in which Sitwell gives her impressions of Marilyn Monroe and the other in which Marilyn Monroe expresses her desire to be taken seriously by the world. Dame Sitwell sees the real Marilyn–her struggle not so different from her own.  At the end of the piece, I give the exchange.

The River of No Return holds particular significance for me. This is one of two movies I remember seeing first as a young child. The other was Disney’s Song of the South.  I remember The River of No Return for the grandeur of the American west, its mountains, rivers, and valleys. As a child, I knew I wanted to go there some day. Nothing could be more romantic than floating down a river surrounded by forests and rugged peaks. Even as a child, I felt the suppressed sexuality in the movie. It should not be surprising, then, that I end up living in a log house in Montana. This is an iconic film of the American west as Marilyn Monroe is an iconic figure of Hollywood. She shaped how young girls thought they should look, growing up conscious of their hair styles, make-up, and figures.  Why couldn’t they be as shapely as Marilyn Monroe?  If they were not blonde, they could be bottle blondes.

Oates has tackled big subjects. Taking on a fictional biography of Marilyn Monroe is one of her biggest. Those who wish to tackle a big book that reveals as much about a movie star as it does about American society, should read Blonde.

Now for the companion poems:

EDITH SITWELL MEETS MARILYN MONROE

Hello, Hollywood beauty bound to pain

your petals of yellow I understand

as only a long-legged sharp-beaked crane

can who holds your green-stemmed hand.

 

You’re a daffodil-girl men deflower

who ignore the attar of your bloom.

In sexy posies for their calendar

they press your gorgeous greenness into gloom.

 

I’ve known men to use women from the start,

to sap them dry then discard the vessel.

I’m tall and turbaned to play a part

fit to skirt this day for the medieval.

 

In that age as in our rusted metal time

our choice was to be a pretty plaything

or wear the virgin crown and veil sublime

in a game to wrap our soul in swaddling.

 

A daffodil bent in a lashing tempest,

you talk in feathered tendrils of thought

about Rudolph Steiner’s truth compressed

as dewdrops on stalks perceived and caught.

 

The Press for sport and profit set the stage

on which intellect was to meet symbol

but I surprised the dull who couldn’t gauge

the measure of flesh’s breathless gambol.

 

An old Dame of England knows the bombshell

under the creamy texture of seductive skin

is rooted like the bulb of a daffodil

that grows so green and blond for gentlemen.

 

The cameras catch only the surface

but I am a poet whose roving eye

births the babe beneath the painted face

and swaddle your masque’s sweet lullaby.

 

I take you seriously to my heart

as a mother, Marilyn, too wise to lie,

as a big bird whose learned her part

to nest without a mate or chick but still fly.

 

Just plain Jane, an ugly British crane,

I’ve felt the pain tall as a crane.

It’s the same pain tall as a crane

I see stalk your art tall as a crane.

 

MARILYN MONROE MEETS EDITH SITWELL 

I know beauty is only skin deep

in the eye of the beholder, is it not?

Why can’t anyone else see that

when they parrot phrases for their pleasure?

I found one man who could –

too bad he’s dead and buried.

Could I bear his greatness in the flesh?

He wouldn’t gawk at me, would he?

He’d want to find my mind, he would –

the beauty poets say never fades.

Read Steiner, have you?  You see my drift.

 

Tell me true, is it worse trapped

in my body or to be six-feet tall

you can’t then bow or be bent

by any man – like you – Edith,

you know all jeweled and gowned

to complement your height does accent

the divine regardless of costume worn.

 

But everyone who sees me sees body.

I’m nobody, the body material, no more.

Why, I’m a dame too, with no capital.

The only capital I wear is marqueed.

Why, Dame Edith, can’t anybody see

the real me with a mind all mine?

I am an actress; I am an artist.

I am a thinker who thinks I am

but see instead my shell crisscross

screens in a trick of dance and death.

 

The bomb I am explodes in bikinis.

Edith, did you dance the body etheric?

Do it barefoot on sandy beaches?

I’m Beauty who senses a Beast

sleeps in me and to awake alive

beyond my mirror image I married

a sports idol then an intellectual

who then might tell me I really am.

Steiner makes sensual sense to me.

I wish to inspire air timelessly,

to awaken imagination more than

the lust men only perceive in us.

Teach me to do it in this life,

beautifully plumed white crane.

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One response to this post.

  1. Posted by Wanie Reeverts on September 10, 2016 at 7:25 am

    The Sitwell/Monroe poem is one of my favorites.

    Reply

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