Chris Forster

Recall these lines from Clement C. Moore’s “A Visit from Saint Nicholas,” (alternately titled “The Night Before Christmas” or “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas”), first published in 1823. See wikipedia page for some notes on contentions with regard to its authorship.

When what to my wondering eyes should appear, But a miniature sleigh and eight tiny reindeer…

But, exactly how miniature is this sleigh, and how tiny are these reindeer? While Moore’s poem did a lot to consolidate the mythology of Santa Claus, one thing that has not remained of Moore’s Saint Nicholas is his height. Recalling this insistence on the tinyness of Santa, much of the confusion around his movement through chimney flues is eliminated. But it also lends a different stress to the comparison of the elf’s nose to “like a cherry” or of his “little round belly” that shakes “like a bowl full of jelly.” At stake here is not simply nose complexion nor belly texture, but size.

If today our Santa is our bigger, it was not always so. And many earlier illustrations are consistent with Moore’s text. Consider these from a 1912 edition [] of the poem, by Jessie Wilcox Smith:


Santa Filling Stockings

Likewise, look at this svelte Santa, by Arthur Rackham from this undate edition [HathiTrust], who is clearly small enough to easily slip down that chimney:

Santa Emerging from Chimney

You can find more Santas at the Public Domain Review, including a gun-toting, WWII Santa, or listen to the poem on wax cylinder [1914].

Editions of the poem:

Spoilers Abound Below

Pioneer F Plaque Symbology

Revised December 5; in the first version, I confused the name of a character (calling Dr. Mann, Dr. Miller.)

Interstellar beats the drum of Dylan Thomas’s villanelle “Do Not Go Gentle Into that Good Night” pretty hard pretty hard—reciting it on multiple occasions (though never all the way through, if I recall correctly, and so never really enjoying its full villanelle-ness). Poetry in the movies often serves a chiefly hortatory, emotive function; it is discourse of moral and emotional seriousness. It is recited by serious people (from memory, of course), and it shows their seriousness. And here seems no different. It confers dignity and emotional seriousness on what would otherwise be the mere extinction of humanity.That summarizes, perhaps, my chief gripe about the movie; its bullying emotionalism. Its soundtrack, in particular, bullies you into feeling what it wants you to feel. As my much beloved Flophouse Podcast is fond of noting, is it really necessary to reinforce the stakes in this way? Is the drama of interstellar exploration so boring that only by augmenting it with heaping doses of Dylan Thomas, or a thudding score, will we realize its import?

In the dystopian future of Interstellar, nearly all crops are dying from an unexplained blight, and NASA Scientist Prof. Brand (Michael Caine) is leading a secret team to save humanity. He offers the poem as a sort of allegory for the necessity of humanity resisting its fate. It is the species that must not go gentle into that good night. And so the addressee of Dylan Thomas’s poem, which is offered from a child to a father, is reversed. Thomas writes, in the villanelle’s conclusion:

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

While the poem advises resistance from closure and finality, the formal demands of the villanelle, which brings together its rhyming refrains in its closing couplet, inexorably move toward them.Elizabeth Bishop’s perhaps superior villanelle “One Art” wonderfully expresses its emotion and irony by defying the meter of the villanelle in its final line.

Thomas’s poem of grieving stands in tension with its form. Its rage is, of necessity, purely affective—it has no real consequence; death is as sure as the rhyme which snaps together the poem’s close. But not so in the dystopian future of Interstellar where Thomas’s words become not the lament of a child to a parent, but the advice of a father to his children. The generational logic of the poem is turned on its head and the poem becomes not the cry of the grieving child at a death as inevitable as the end of day, but an expression of the parent’s anxiety that children (not even his children; but children) will simply wither out of existence. Thomas’s poem grieves the natural course of things; Prof. Brand’s reading repurposes it as a resistance to the potential extinction of that putatively natural course.

And yet, the poem’s place in the film is vexed. It is recited by the characters who (after a precisely timed revelation) are revealed as something like the film’s “villains”—characters whose lies reveal that the will to live and the refusal to acquiesce are not, in themselves, particularly good things; raging ain’t so great after all. It turns out that Brand’s Plan A—the mass migration of the human population to another planet once he cracks a pesky gravity equation (which, like any good academic, he promises requires just a little more research)—is a noble lie. On his deathbed he reveals that he already knew the equation would never work out. Plan A was a false promise fed to people who would be unwilling to hazard the risks of interstellar travel unless their own lives, or those of their family, were guaranteed. After all, no one would sacrifice themselves merely for Plan B, wherein the human species is preserved in a sort of dorm-fridge full of petri dishes (“genetic samples”), and shipped off-planet. A process which the younger Prof. Brand (daughter of Caine’s Prof. Brand, played by Anne Hatheway) assures us, would be totally effective and superior to earlier forms of colonization because it ensures genetic diversity.Um… imperialist biopolitics much, Professor Brand?).

The other person we hear recite Thomas’s poem is Dr. Mann (played by a hadsome, young up-and-comer),I’m pretty sure he recites it, but not entirely positive… I’ve only seen the film once. Boy, this is all gonna be really unconvincing if I misremembered this. who deceives our intrepid explorers with forged data suggesting that the planet he is exploring is a reasonable prospect for human colonization. Mann forges that data to justify his own worthiness to be retrieved from the planet. As Mann explains to Cooper (while he is killing him… he has really missed human conversation while in cryo-freeze), the will to live is simply too strong; Mann knows he’s a coward, but insists that Cooper has never had to face the sort of isolation and horror that he has. The will to live (that rage against the dying of light) is so strong in Mann that he’s willing lie, and to kill (both Cooper and Romilly) for it.

And so, the rage against death that Mann and Brand profess, by way of Thomas’s poem, is not a good in and of itself. Indeed, their recitations of the poem marks them as self-interested to the point of villainy. They quote the poem to buttress their rage against death itself—their own, individual death (in the case the more villainous Mann) or that of the species (in the case of Brand). But the film ultimately rejects this position—it is not life which needs to continue, (cue music and impassioned speech by Anne Hathaway) but love (and love of a very recognizable, reproductive sort). What old folks should do at the end of day, like the elderly Murph Cooper at film’s end, is not rage against the dying of the light, but quietly die in the peace and comfort of their children. Can one imagine a more forceful restoration of the conventional order of things than Murph quickly dispatching her father back to interstellar space in order to find a girlfriend? This is what T.J. West calls calls, fairly I think, the film’s “ruthlessly heterosexual love plot that could have come straight out of a screenwriter’s how to manual.”

And so, the film refuses the queer reproduction of Plan B (I leave aside any potential connection one may seen between the film’s Plan B, and the contraceptive of the same name), and delights in a reproductive futurity for which the reuniting of Anne Hathaway’s character with Matthew McConaughey’s is important and meaningful. Thomas’s poem comes to stand not as it might appear in the trailer, as some exhortation to intergalactic heroism in the face of global environmental catastrophe, but as the most explicit statement of the position to be resisted—one where the affective attachments of individuals (in Thomas’s poem, the speaker to his father) may be fundamentally at odds with the nature of the world in which we live (the necessity of death). Whatever the rage of Thomas’s poem accomplishes, it doesn’t set up colonies on distant planets.

Over and over characters in the film (Cooper chiefly) are told that they must realize their mission is bigger than their petty human attachments. Cooper must think beyond his children; “You can’t just think about your family,” Doyle says, “You have to think bigger than that.” And he is echoes by Brand: “You might have to decide between seeing your children again and the future of the human race.” Brand herself must defer to objective facts in choosing which planet to visit; the data, not her love for Dr. Doyle, must decide. But in the film all of this turns out to be untrue. John Brand’s insistence that “Nothing in our solar system can safe us,” is, at best, half true—it is the plucky Murph Cooper who saves the world from her childhood bedroom. “We must think not as individuals but as a species,” Prof Brand insists. Interstellar goes out of its way—with some pretty cringe-inducing moments—to create a universe where precisely the opposite is true, where the affective attachments of individuals are what save the species After all, if Cooper had listened to Brand (had listened to love) and gone to Doyle’s planet rather than Mann’s, all would be well now.

Interstellar tackles a posthumanity-shaped problem, but answers it with a humanity so cloying it is almost (almost!) indigestible. It turns out that the problems of three little people do amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world—indeed, they amount to the whole world.

The Podcast as a Genre

What precisely is a podcast? I once heard a minimal definition of a podcast as an mp3 file attached to an RSS feed—which is to say, syndicated audio content on the internet. But looking around, there are plenty of podcasts that don’t meet this criteria: podcasts that lack an RSS feed (WHY?!?), to speak nothing of “video podcasts” (which people are apparently strill trying to make happen). “Podcast” can sometimes be used as a verb to mean something like “transmitting audio over the internet” (e.g. “Will you be podcasting that keynote lecture?”). Looking at iTunes, you realize plenty of “podcasts” are just radio shows put on the internet: iTunes’s most popular podcasts are mostly public radio fare (like “This American Life” and “Radiolab”).

But, the podcast is not simply a technology or a channel. I’ve been listening to podcasts for awhile now and have been curious to watch my habits slowly shift, moving away from “radio shows on the internet” (Fresh Air, whenever I want it!) to something else. This piece looks at the “return” of podcasts as a medium, mostly considering the podcast as a business model. It does however offer this, from “Planet Money” podcaster Alex Blumberg, on what makes podcasts different:

“It’s the most intimate of mediums. It’s even more intimate than radio. Often you’re consuming it through headphones. I feel like there’s a bond that’s created.” Source

That seems entirely right to me, and it helpfully points to some of the ways that what I’ll call podcasts as a genre differ from understanding podcasts as just “radio over the internet.” The “podcast” as a form blurs the line between a medium (say, a recurring, asynchronously consumed type of audio—usually neither music or fiction) and a genre. The podcast, as medium, has been enabled by readier access to bandwidth, software technologies like iTunes syndication and RSS, and developments in hardware like relatively cheap but entirely decent microphonesWoe unto the podcaster who relies on built-in mics on laptops and phones, for he shall receive low traffic. and of course the iPod. But these technologies, in their use, create a sort of gravitational pull toward a form that is less formal, more niche, and therefore oddly closer to a sort of specialized and heightened mode of casual conversation than it is to most radio genres.

When the costs of creating and distributing recordings of folks talking into microphones gets way cheaper than the costs of writing/producing/reporting stories, you get a new sort of show—where folks just sit around and talk. Central to the conventions of this genre is, I think, the group of regular or semi-regular folks who sit around and talk about something. Such are Leo Laporte’s TWIT podcasts; the original TWiT, one of the first podcasts I listened to, was indeed Leo Laporte sitting with folks (some of whom his listeners recognize as, like Laporte, erstwhile TechTV employees) and talking about the week’s technology news. This form tends to be parasitic on some other type of content—on news or culture (daily or weekly or semi-regularly), or even on a specific film or primary text. There has to be some reason, some excuse or alibi, for the conversation to exist—but the podcast offers a conversation rather than the news.

This may not seem especially novel—after all, personality-driven “analysis” now dominates cable news. Yet cable news analysis shows usually center on a single individual, and their dominant moods are outrage or indignation or derision; they tend to be centered a personality (variably likeable or not) who offers a “perspective.” But what a podcast offers is not a perspective (or not chiefly a perspective) but something more like a performance of community. In place of the singular personality, we get personalities. A podcast tends to create characters, or caricatures, out of its hosts: for instance, Stephen Metcalf’s snobbish nostalgia for the world of print clashing regularly with Julia Turner’s culturally omnivorous techno-utopianism on the Slate Culturefest (both, of course, unfair exagerations). But in other podcasts (perhaps notably, podcasts not affiliated with any large online media presence), this develops into a sense of shared reference—something like insiderness or knowingness. The result is that certain podcasts (the podcastiest of the podcasts by my sense of the genre) rely heavily on inside jokes. Consider the following short phrases: “Who the hell is Casey?”; “Does this look clean to you?”; “The Port Hole of Time.” To the listeners of certain podcasts, they will immediately register as inside jokes—from, respectively: The Accidental Tech Podcast; Back to Work (quoting the film The Aviator, which in the universe of Back to Work is frequently referered to as simply the film); and The Flop House. Listeners of these podcasts (and I listen to all of these pretty faithfully, though the truly faithful will likely fault my selections) come to recognize these, and participate in the joke. These podcasts create a universe of reference alienating to the newcomer, but comforting to the regular. And the result is just wonderful. These are my guiltiest of guilty pleasure. I try to conceal my love for them, but I cannot.

That intimacy of the medium described by Alex Blumberg, created by the circumstances of consumption (on headphones or in the carAre these things great, or what?), manifests in the genre as a tendency towards dense self-reference.

The result is that the topic of the podcast can increasingly seem to be just an alibi for the interactions of its hosts. I don’t really care about Apple News, but listen to ATP regularly. The greatest joy of The Flop House (a “bad movie” podcast, which reviews/discussions relatively recent theatrical “flops”) is the experience of hearing the hosts summarize the plot of a movie and the digressions that ensue. One emphatically does not have to have seen the movie to enjoy the podcast, and unlike a review (or even the discussions of film and TV on the Slate Culturefest), it is completely beside the point whether you will see the movie at some point in the future. I suspect that I’ll never see the Bratz movie; but I shall cherish all the days of my life The Flop House’s discussion of it. Listen to early episodes and you’ll see that the plot summary initially presented a challenge—something they glossed over or tried to get past in order to get to the discussion (on at least one occassion they just read the Wikipedia summary of a movie). But the joy of the show is entirely in the interactions between its hosts, and so something as rote as a plot summary becomes the perfect opportunity for such interaction. It also explains why at least I find these sorts of shows more engaging than other audio content. The academic lecture, or even Fresh Air-style interviews, sometimes allows distraction. But the developing conversation, and tissue of self-reference, simulates the experience of interaction rather than, say, the communication of information. (What an interview show like Fresh Air lacks is the regularity of its participants; you’re usually learning something about a guest rather than a conversation between people who already know each other.)

By foregrounding in jokes and habits of communication, the podcast turns out to be a cousin to that other “internetiest” of forms: the meme. The meme is likewise an in-joke, where the in-group is those folks who recognize the meme and understand its conventions. The humor of any individual “doge,” meme (remember that?) is siphoned off from the larger system of doge memes that makes any particular meme legible and funny. (A picture of a cat with some funny, misspelled words, encoutered in utter isolation, carved into the face of some alien moon millenia hence, would be funny because absurd—but it wouldn’t be a meme and wouldn’t participate in its humor.)

The affective range of the podcast is much wider than that of meme, chiefly because hearing a conversation between the same set of people (semi)regularly opens more possibilities than silly pictures and block letters. (There I said it; call me elitist.) But this affective depth cuts the other way—it also suggests what I find mildly unsettling about the form, and perhaps slightly embarassing about my enjoyment of it. If I’m right that inside jokes, and a certain performance of knowing insiderness, are what separates the podcast as a genre from its radio peers, it also feels a little like media consumption as simulated friendship. Its enjoyments are those of easy familiarity and comfortable in-jokes, but with friends who aren’t yours. (You might call this the anxiety of authenticity, and I’ll just take my lumps for worrying over something as old-fashioned as authenticity.)

More troublingly, that same affective register (of chummy friendship and inside jokes) seems downright insidious when you realize how overwhelmingly the list of podcasts I’ve cited here is dominanted by white guys. In so much as the pleasures and affects of the genre are those associated with those of the proverbial boys club, it is dismaying to see how much of a boy’s club it often is.

What is a podcast? It is the humanization of the internet meme, a type of low-participation friendship, a reduced agency form of “hanging out.”

Yours in Flopitude, Chris [Last Name Witheld]

While I haven’t been vocal about it, work has continued, in off moments and stolen time, on the online edition of Claude McKay’s Harlem Shadows which I described some time ago. At the present moment, Roopika Risam and I have collected nearly all the textual variants and have marked them up in TEI; we added (as yet unproofread) versions of early reviews and other supplemental material (and still more is being hunted down and added); and there is enough XSLT and CSS to hold the whole thing together, more or less. It is very much still a work in progress, but you can see the current state of its progress here.

This process has also been an opportunity to understand the textual history of the poems of Harlem Shadows, including the relationship of the collection Harlem Shadows to McKay’s earlier collection Spring in New Hampshire. The Jamaican poet who travels to rural Kansas in order to pursue a degree in agriculture and ends up being one of the early voices of Harlem Renaissance, manages to do so by passing through not only Harlem, but New Hampshire and, crucially, London. Spring in New Hampshire was how many readers first encountered McKay (including readers like Charlie Chaplin and Hubert Harrison), and the collection offers a valuable first draft of Harlem Shadows.

The collection Spring in New Hampshire was first published in 1920. Its “Acknowledgments” page notes two facts which underscore this volume’s importance in the emergence of Harlem Shadows.

Acknowledgments are due to the Editors of The Seven Arts, the American Pearsons and The Liberator, where, as in the current issue of The Cambrdige Magazine a number of the poems included in this volume have appeared. An American edition is being published simultaneously by Alfred A. Knopf, 220 West Forty-second Street, New York.

First, when Spring in New Hampshire appeared, an American edition of was clearly imagined as immiment. But the American edition, purportedly “being published simultaneously by Alfred A. Knopf,” never materialized. What did appear, two years later (published by Harcourt, Brace, and Co) was Harlem Shadows.

And if Harlem Shadows is substantially indebted to Spring in New Hampshire About one third of Harlem Shadows’s poems appear in Spring, among them “Tropics in New York,” “The Barrier,” “North and South,” “Harlem Shadows,” “The Harlem Dancer,” and “The Lynching”., Spring in New Hampshire in turn is less an origin than another gathering point for poems culled from elsewhere; this is especially the case of a large selection of poems which appear in the Summer 1920 issue of The Cambridge Magazine. This latter includes 23 of Spring in New Hampshire’s 31 poems. And, with the exception of the dedication of “Spring in New Hampshire” (dedicated in Spring to “J. L. J. F. E.”This would almost certainly be Dutch bibliophile, and the man in part responsible for McKay’s trip to London, J. L. J. F. Ezerman (Gosciak 117).), there are no textual differences between the poems as they appear in CM and as they appear in Spring.

To secure the point I’m moving towards, compare these images, taken from the appearance of “The Tropics in New York” in Cambridge Magazine (top) and Spring in New Hampshire (bottom): My thanks to Nicholas Morris who takes no responsibility for this conjecture, but was enormously helpful in discussing its plausibility.

Comparison of 'Tropics in New York' in both SPRING IN NEW HAMPSHIRE and CAMBRIDGE MAGAZINE.

Do you see that imperfection in the ‘I’ of “I could no more gaze” in both versions. Does they look identical to you too? It seems reasonable to conjecture that the Cambridge Magazine poems and Spring in New Hampshire were both printed, if not from a single setting of type, then at least from a setting of type which likely included some of the same typeset material (in either monotype, linotype, or set by hand) from the Cambridge Magazine.In the interest of full disclosure, there is a similar imperfection in the Cambridge Magazine text of “When Dawn Comes to the City” which does not appear in the Spring in New Hampshire; but this does not vitiate the possibility, and evidence, suggesting the two texts represent something like a single setting of type.

The circumstances surrounding Cambridge Magazine likewise seem to confirm this possibility. Cambridge Magazine, at the time, was run by C. K. Ogden, with whom McKay spent time while visiting England in 1920. Ogden ran the magazine in collaboration with a number of his friends (among them, I. A. Richards). Of Ogden, McKay would write in his autobiography A Long Way from Home: “besides steering me round the picture galleries and being otherwise kind, [Ogden] had published a set of my verses in his Cambridge Magazine. Later he got me a publisher” (71). If McKay means that Ogden secured the publisher for Spring in New Hampshire (and that seems the most likely meaning here), it would certainly make sense that Ogden would go through the same publishing channels (including, perhaps, the same printer) as for the periodical for which he was responsible. The frontmatter of Spring in New Hampshire (published by Grant Richards), lists the printer as “The Morland Press.” And while Ogden (according to Josh Gosciak) authored the prefatory note for the appearance of the poems in Cambridge Magazine, it was I. A. Richards (a friend of Ogden’s, who regularly appeared in the Cambridge Magazine, including the Summer 1920 issue in which McKay’s poems appeared) who wrote the note the Spring in New Hampshire (after, according to McKay, George Bernard Shaw declined to write such an introductory note, Long Way Home 55).

All of which is interesting and worthy of note insomuch as it suggests that Harlem Shadows, key document of the Harlem Renaissance, has its origins not only in Jamaica and New York, but in New Hampshire and London. This eclecticism was vital to Ogden’s interest in McKay; Ogden was at this moment, working with I. A. Richards on what would emerge as “Basic English.” In BASIC, “Ogden wanted a usable language that reflected the hybridity of the changing dynamic of cultures and languages in the Caribbean, Africa, the United States, and Asia” (Gosciak 102). And in McKay, Ogden believed he had found a uniquely valuable voice in the development of such a language—a language, Gosciak describes, which would “decolonize the dominant ideology that espoused war and imperialism” (103).

Yet, the way in which McKay and Ogden imagined this decolonization of English is somewhat surprising. McKay came to Ogden frustrated with what he perceived to be the limitations of his previously published poetry, in Jamacian dialect. Here is Gosciak again:

[McKay’s] reputation was as the “Bobby Burns” of Jamaican folk wisdom, who could write persuasive “love songs” in a sonorous dialect. But an exasperated McKay explained to Ogden: “One can’t express any deep thought to perfection in it, nor can it effectively bring forth the note of sorrow.” Dialect was hackneyed, McKay concluded. “I’ve buried it and don’t care to revive it again.” Ogden was sympathetic to the poet’s desires to internationalize his poetics, and he mentioned him in precision and exactness—de-emotionalizing his lyrics of the charged baggage of Harlem and race. (104)

This tension is manifest in a disagreement between Ogden and McKay over what to title the collection. Ogden was interested in developing an international English, Gosciak, drawing on material in the Papers of CK Ogden explains:

McKay was opposed to [the title] Spring in New Hampshire, and Other Poems; he believed the title conjured associations with New England, which he felt was “played out”… McKay preferred “a terse, simple thing” for a title, such as “Poems or Verse,” which Ogden, too, appreciated. But McKay also had an eye for the New York—and Harlem—reading public. He suggested “Dawn in New York,” invoking imagery that would ultimately give texture to Harlem Shadows in 1922. Ogden persisted in his claims for the high lyricism of Frost, and eventually McKay came around to that aesthetic ground. (The choice of title, Spring in New Hampshire, was, as McKay acknowledged, a bold move for a poet who would very soon reprsent the Harlem Renaissance.) (Gosciak 105)

There is sort of confusion of motivations here; McKay’s frustration with dialect and Ogden’s attempt to decolonize English both find expression of in the poems of Spring in New Hampshire—poems that rely on traditional forms—sonnets aplenty!—and frequently Victorian diction. Yet, Ogden’s vision of de-colonizing English also involves de-racinating, with the effect that Ogden preferred to see McKay’s verse avoid any allusion too direct to Harlem or race.

And so Spring in New Hampshire ends up being as notable for what it doesn’t share with Harlem Shadows as what it does. The most famous poem of Harlem Shadows, “If We Must Die,” had first appeared in The Liberator in 1919, but it was not included in Spring in New Hampshire. In A Long Way Home, McKay recounts bringing a copy of Spring in New Hampshire to Frank Harris, of Pearson’s Magazine (who had wanted to publish “If We Must Die,” though he lost out to The Liberator):

[Harris] was pleased that I had put over the publication of a book of poems in London. “It’s a hard, mean city for any kind of genius,” he said, “and that’s an achivement for you.” He looked through the little brown-covered book. Then he ran his finger down the table of contents, closely scrutinizing. I noticed his aggressive brow becoem heavier and scowling. Suddenly he roared: “Where is the poem?… That fighting poem, ‘If We Must Die.’ Why isn’t it printed here?”

I was ashamed. My face was scorched with fire. I stammered: “I was advised to keep it out.”

“You are a bloody traitor to your race, sir!” Frank Harris shouted. “A damned traitor to your own integrity. That’s what the English and civilization have done to your people. Emasculated them. Deprived them of their guts. Better you were a head-hunting, blood-drinking cannibal of the jungle than a civilized coward. You were bolder in America. The English make obscene sycophants of their subject peoples. I am Irish and I know. But we Irish have guts you cannot rip out of us. I am ashamed of you, sir. It’s a good thing you got out of Engliand. It is no place for a genius to live.”

Frank Harris’s words cut like a whip into my hide, and I was glad to get out of his uncomfortable presence. Yet I felt relieved after his castigation. The excision of the poem had been like a nerve cut out of me, leaving a wound which would not heal. And it hurt more every time I saw the damned book of verse. I resolved to plug hard for the publication of an American edition, which would include the omitted poem. (81-82)

McKay here ends up being caught between two white editors, and their respective ways of imagining a response to British colonialism. (This situation recalls that of McKay and his relationship to dialect poetry discussed in Michael North’s excellent chapter in The Dialect of Modernism.)

That American edition that McKay resolves to publish after this encounter with Harris would, of course, be Harlem Shadows. Harlem Shadows, in McKay’s depiction, is a version of Spring in New Hampshire and a repudiation of it. Elsewhere in his autobiography he writes, “I was full and overflowing with singing and I sang all moods, wild, sweet, and bitter. I was steadfastly pursuing one object: the publication of an American book of verse. I desired to see ‘If We Must Die,’ the sonnet I had omitted in the London volume, inside of a book” (116).

Yet, if McKay’s comments encourage us to read Harlem Shadows as a re-politicized version of Spring in New Hampshire, “If We Must Die” itself, nevertheless, famously operates by abstracting the political violence of the “Red Summer” of 1919 into an unspecified “we kinsmen” against a “common foe.” And, indeed, Harlem Shadows, like Spring in New Hampshire, does not include some of McKay’s most explicitly political poetry of this period—poems like “To the White Fiends” or “A Capitalist at Dinner,” which were initially published in the same period, and in the same venues, as poems like “If We Must Die,” remain excluded.

All of which indicates the value of a comprehensive collection of all the contemporary poems and material which went into the making of Harlem Shadows—both through their inclusion and their exclusion.

Appendix: Tables of Contents Compared

Below I’ve preserved the original orderings of the tables of contents for both Harlem Shadows and Spring in New Hampshire and used color (a lovely salmon) to indicate which titles are shared.

Harlem Shadows Spring in New Hampshire
The Easter Flower Spring in New Hampshire
To One Coming North The Spanish Needle
America The Lynching
Alfonso, Dressing to Wait at Table To O. E. A.
The Tropics in New York Alfonso, Dressing to Wait at Table, Sings
Flame Heart Flowers of Passion
Home Thoughts To Work
On Broadway Morning Joy
The Barrier Reminiscences
Adolescence On Broadway
Homing Swallows Love Song
The City’s Love North and South
North and South Rest in Peace
Wild May A Memory of June
The Plateau To Winter
After the Winter Winter in the Country
The Wild Goat After the Winter
Harlem Shadows The Tropics in New York
The White City I Shall Return
The Spanish Needle The Castaways
My Mother December 1919
In Bondage Flame-Heart
December, 1919 In Bondage
Heritage Harlem Shadows
When I Have Passed Away The Harlem Dancer
Enslaved A Prayer
I Shall Return The Barrier
Morning Joy When Dawn Comes to the City
Africa The Choice
On a Primitive Canoe Sukee River
Winter in the Country Exhortation
To Winter
Spring in New Hampshire
On the Road
The Harlem Dancer
Dawn in New York
The Tired Worker
I Know My Soul
Birds of Prey
The Castaways
Exhortation: Summer, 1919
The Lynching
If We Must Die
Subway Wind
The Night Fire
To a Poet
A Prayer
When Dawn Comes to the City
O Word I Love to Sing
Summer Morn in New Hampshire
Rest in Peace
A Red Flower
To O. E. A.
Flower of Love
The Snow Fairy
La Paloma in London
A Memory of June
One Year After
French Leave
Through Agony

Works Cited

  • Gosciak, Josh. The Shadowed Country: Claude Mckay and the Romance of the Victorians. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2006. Print.

  • McKay, Claude. A Long Way from Home. Ed. Gene Andrew Jarrett. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2007. Print.

Somewhere in New Jersey...

In a previous post on a graduate course I taught last Spring, I mentioned the server I ended up using a way to try to establish some uniformity of access to software packages and tools. In this post, I’ll try to add a few details.

Virtual Private Servers

The first thing to understand about “the server” is that I rented a VPS, a “virtual(ized) private server,” rather than some shared space. If you don’t know what that means, let me try to explain (if you do know what that means, you may want to move along to the next section).

The word server itself is one of the slipperier bits of our contemporary argot. It can name a number of different links in a relationship between one piece of software and another (to say nothing of the people on either end, or perhaps in between). This slipperiness is only compounded with the advent of virtual private servers.

Prior to virtualization, if you wanted to host a webpage, you could either run (or rent) your own dedicated hardware, or you go with a “shared hosting” option. For most folks who run their own blog, shared hosting remains the obvious choice. This blog is hosted on such a shared host. Shared hosting relies on a few facts:LAMP: that is Linux (an operating system to manage the hardware resources, to schedule processes… you know, to turn electricity, plastic, and rare earth elements into a computer), Apache (the most widely used web server), MySQL (the most widely used database; which has its own database server), and (usually) PHP (a scripting language).

  • most folks' hosting needs can be solved by a single “stack” of common software, usually the so-called LAMP stack
  • most folks' blogs don’t get sufficient traffic to require that much hardware, and so many blogs (websites, whatever) can be “served” by a single (“shared”) host.
  • the OS can easily separate out different users; that way, I can run Wordpress and create a database, and you can run Drupal and create a database, all on the same hardware, without either of us being able to destroy one another’s data.

The drawback to shared hosting is that you have very little control over the server. You usually can’t, for instance, install new software, beyond packages of PHP scripts. Of course, for web hosting, that’s no big deal; you don’t really need to install anything beyond whatever CMS you want anyway. Anyone who has had problems with a web host’s version of PHP, or similar issues, knows that this isn’t quite true.

This compromise with respect to control over the server configuration is a function of cost (and of course, expertise; do you really want to have to worry about building that “software stack”?). To have complete control over a server would mean that you had a dedicated server (in this case, “server” means actual hardware), perhaps in your office (in theory it could be your laptop), in an IT closet, or rented in a server farm somewhere. With the advent of software virtualization, however, this changed. With virtualization, a single piece of hardware can run multiple “virtual machines”; the host system simulates another machine, on which you can then run software which itself doesn’t really know the difference. (If you run Windows on a Mac with Parallels, this idea may be quite familiar.) You can do the same thing with a server. That computer that talked to the internet, and served web pages (or whatever), is not just a virtual machine. And such a virtualized private server (a VPS, as opposed to a shared host) reconfigures the costs involve, and makes it more affordable to give you more control over the software installed, without incurring the full cost of owning/renting/running an actual physical hardware server.

A virtualized server is (very significantly) cheaper than running your own hardware, but allows you many of the advantages of actually running your own hardware. It is still, in general, more expensive than shared hosting. To give you some sense of the cost, the lowest tier Linode VPS is $20/month. Digital Ocean’s lowest tier is only $5/month.

A Customized Server

Because it is so customizable, I thought a VPS could offer a solution to the challenge of trying to make software uniformly available to students enrolled in the digital humanities seminar I was teaching. With such a system I could give everyone access to Python and the NLTK (and its associated corpora) without having to ask folks to install that software on their own machines. I could install MALLET and R (and relevant R packages) and Stanford’s Named Entity Recognizer and an XSLT processor. This was also a relatively flexible solution; if someone wanted to try something else, perhaps something I’d never heard of, it was in many easy to install it on the server.

The easy in that last sentence is a function of Linux package management. If you’re used to installing from .EXEs (or .DMGs) you download from the web, the world of package management can seem arcane. However, for large pieces of software, package management systems are wonderful and can be (deceptively) simple to use. While getting everything up and running is a bit of a trick (you need to first install an operating system—about which a little more below—and then some basic software to let you connect to the server), installing a piece of software, like the R language, is as simple as typing:

sudo apt-get install r-base

And then, you have R installed, and you’re ready to go at the command line. In my experience, Linux package management is often easier than trying to handle software dependencies on other OSes (at least once you’re familiar with conventions of your package management system).

Easy is also relative; if you’re comfortable at the command line, using a package manager feels intellectually more intuitive and comprehensible than dragging a DMG into an “Applications” folder, or double-clicking an EXE. But if you’re uncomfortable with the command line, this will likely feel as uncomfortable as navigating your filesystem or anything else.

Server Setup

Before you can install packages, though you need to first install a base, Linux operating system. If you’re unfamiliar with Linux, this may not be the kindest or easiest way to get acquainted with it, though the good folks at Linode (hardly unbiased) insist “If you’re looking to learn, there is no better environment. Experiment with the different Linux flavors, redeploy from scratch in a matter of minutes.”. I have spent too much of my life playing with Linux distros, and so this part of the process felt quite natural. And yet, I still managed to make what I now consider a wrong choice in configuring the server. Linux comes in a wide array of flavors or distributions.Technically, “Linux” is not an OS, but an OS “kernel.” This distinction, and what we call things, can get contentious. Of the options Linode offers (Ubuntu, Arch, OpenSuse, Gentoo, CentOS, Slackware, Debian, Fedora) I opted for Debian. Debian has a reputation for being a very stable distro; and so it would be a great choice for running a web-server. Of course, I wasn’t running a web and so stability was not, in fact, my chief concern. I probably should have chosen a distribution which prioritized not stability, but the ease and availability of new and up-to-date software packages. Arch Linux, with its “rolling release” schedule (and the operating system I once loved with a passion I’ve not since been able to match) would have made more sense. It would have been easier with Arch to install the most update versions of certain Python packages, etc etc. Oh well. Maybe next time.

Once you’re base OS is installed; it’s time to install the basic packages you will need to do anything at all. But since you now are responsible for a computer somewhere in New JerseyI must say, the responsiveness of the Linode servers shocked me; that computer in NJ was consistently more responsive than my home media server. I regularly ran emacs sessions on the server and found them completely responsive. you need to worry about security. You don’t want someone hijacking your VPS and using to send spam or whatever else. Linode offers some tips and I consulted this page for some advice as well. It wasn’t nearly as scary as I imagined. I installed fail2ban (and left the default settings), turned off root log-in from ssh, and that was about it. I have (so far) had no problems.

Connecting and Interacting with the Server

I’ve sort of glossed over a pretty fundamental fact; with the exception of RStudio server (mentioned below), the only way to interact with the server as I’ve described it is through SSH; and so the only access you have to the server is command line access. For the most part, that was fine for the goals I had for the class. Command line access allowed people to experiment with Python and NLTK; they could run MALLET, and similar things. You couldn’t run, say, Gephi on the server though.

And this limitation proved frustrating for folks working with film and images. For one thing, moving large movie/image files back and forth to the server would have proved unpleasant; moreover, software like ImageJ couldn’t be installed on the server and had to be installed locally. (I did manage, though, to do some image manipulation with ImageMagick—here is every page of the Little Review in a single image (a larger, ~150M, image is available here):

Little Review Montage

A Close-Up of the Little Review Montage

For folks who were interested in using R, RStudio Server worked wonderfully; it allowed folks to connect to the server through their web browser and have an RStudio Session that looked something like this:

RStudio, Running

While I gripe about R, RStudio is really excellent. If there is comparable server project that will let folks run python and python packages (including matplotlib) through a browser in a similar way, please, please let me know. RStudio provides a great way to provide a standardized R environment with a common set of shared packages (and perhaps even data) available to all.

There are other things one could do with sort of set-up; if you wanted to run an old-school Bulletin Board System or MUD, you could do it (here are some ideas about running a BBS system). You also might look at The BBS Corner’s Telnet & Dial-Up BBS Guide or Convolution BBS. As a way to offer certain pieces of software to people without requiring them to install them, running this server was very helpful. If you’re doing tasks that can be scripted and which can often take a very long time to complete (such as topic modeling, or named entity extraction, or POS tagging)I would add certain types of image manipulation—as I did with the Little Review example noted above; though as I say, shuttling the images back and forth can be unpleasant; this unpleasantness is partially allayed if you’re scripting your image acquisition with a script, “a little wget magic”, or similar ought to work. you can set them going, disconnect from the server and then check on them later (using a program like screen to make this easy; it’s really great to be walking to home, knowing that somewhere in New Jersey a computer is dutifully seeking 100 topics across 5000 documents).

I’ve skipped over some of the other unglamorous, sysadminy things one must do: creating user accounts for each person in the class; creating a shared directory that everyone could read and write to; and other things like that. For someone comfortable at the command line, and interested to learn, all of that stuff is entirely manageable.

For older posts see the archive.