10 Books to Better Understand America (by Author Jack Matthews)

Two years ago Matthews created  this list, writing, “Gordon Graham, founder & erstwhile editor of the periodical LOGOS in the UK asked me to list 10 books I’d recommend to educated, English-speaking foreigners to understand the US, so I happily obliged & am attaching my list, for I managed to sneak in HANGER as one of those books. (In token modesty I backed out at the last minute & substituted Michael Connelly’s THE LAST COYOTE for HANGER, thinking Connelly’s book would help balance the east-of-the-Mississippi character & old-fashioned focus of the other 9, but Gordon wanted me to keep HANGER in, so I of course agreed).”

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I’ve found this an interesting challenge, perhaps in one way more interesting than most would have found it, because I’ve personally experienced little of the greater world, leading a rather provincial existence, most of it in the wooded hills of southeastern Ohio. Obviously, I could never pass for a cosmopolite.

As for the challenge, I’ve tried to keep in mind Gordon Graham’s caution about not just listing books we love, but books that are important revelations of what it is to be “American” (the quotation marks are necessary, for the word is exasperatingly elusive, precisely as it is meaningful). Still, I’ve tried to list those that I love among those that are informative, having my cake and eating it, too – in a manner of speaking..

HUCKLEBERRY FINN, Mark Twain

An inevitable choice and a beautiful book, although a seriously flawed novel (strictly speaking, PUDD’NHEAD WILSON is better as a novel). Still, HUCKLEBERRY FINN is on just about everybody’s list of the best whatevers, and can even inspire people to such insipidities as Harold Bloom referring to one of the paragraphs as the most beautiful paragraph in the language. Unutterably silly, to be sure; but his silliness does convey something of HB’s mindless enthusiasm.

Hemingway once famously said that all American novels grew out of HUCKLEBERRY FINN, but elsewhere he said that war was the only subject worthy of a writer. Of course, he said a lot of things, and it would be curmudgeonly for us to insist too seriously upon his making sense whenever he opened his mouth.

As for HUCK FINN’s inclusion in this list, I would prefer qualifying it by listing LIFE ON THE MISSISSIPPI in its place – making this a dual listing and perhaps not playing the game. Still, LIFE ON THE MISSISSIPPI seems to me Mark Twain consistently at his very best. The book is lyrical, witty and informative. And it teems with delightful definitions (e.g., An “Alligator Pilot is a man who can smell alligators from as far away as a Christian can smell whiskey.”

 THE OPTIMIST’S DAUGHTER, Eudora Welty

In this short, complex novel, Eudora Welty has created a world that is paradoxically regional (“southern”), even clannish, and yet generically “American” – even universal.Eudora-Welty

Most of the action is in the deep south and it follows the death of old Judge McKelva (the “optimist”), and is focused upon his daughter, Laurel, who is the novel’s protagonist, as the title proclaims. After he dies, Laurel’s and Fay’s (his young 2nd wife’s) family go about revealing themselves and creating scenes of delicious comic confusion.. One of the novel’s motifs consists of birds, and as one of the women is expressing her disapproval of Fay (who is, indeed, a superlatively nasty specimen), she is interrupted: “Singing over her words, the mockingbird poured out his voice without stopping.”

Indeed, throughout the novel, the birds constitute a strange voiceless Chorus, creating a delicate thread of ironic symbolism, in which near the end of the novel, a bird is even trapped in the dead man’s house with Laurel (the trapped bird symbolizing bad luck, of course), causing her to say, “Birds fly toward light – I’m sure I’ve been told.” Just as good novels try to work their intricate ways toward the light.

This is a beautiful novel, justly celebrated; and it will not easily reveal its deeper secrets, nor will those secrets entirely fade from a reader’s mind.

 JOURNALS, Ralph Waldo Emerson

A repository of the wide-ranging thoughts of a man who was once known as “the wisest American” – a term that is not as foolish as many such superlatives. These journals, ostensibly written for himself, teem with observations that open up parts of the world, and that world is Emerson’s New England as well as . . . well, America and the World!

Consider these short samples: “Some play at chess, some at cards, some at the Stock Exchange. I prefer to play at Cause and Effect”; “Our moods do not believe in each other”; “Poets learn to relieve themselves of misery by shoveling it into poems” (exquisitely appropriate for the “confessional poets” of the 20th century), and, finally, this gem: ”Old men are drunk with time.”

The journals are available in a 10- volume edition, but the one volume edition, edited by Bliss Perry, provides a useful introduction.

 THE GREAT GATSBY, F. Scott Fitzgerald

How could Fitzgerald’s magical novel not be on this list? Jay Gatsby is a symbol of how everyone in America can become a king. Maybe. Sort of. (“Maybe” and “sort of” are necessary qualifications, of course, relating to virtually all that is problematic and human.)

In a way, and for many, GATSBY can be elected to that pinnacle of “the great American novel” – which is an unfortunate label, but to the extent that it makes any kind of sense, Fitzgerald’s masterpiece would make a strong bid for the job.

 THE NICK ADAMS STORIES, Ernest Hemingway

No matter how the word is defined, Hemingway was just about as “American” as a writer could ever be, and yet most of the places celebrated in his books are European or African. In this collection of the Nick Adams stories, however – culled from his other story collections and published after his death – the American scene is a vivid and unmistakable presence, especially Michigan, where much of Hemingway’s youth was spent.

The American love of nature and the “wide open spaces” is both a distinguishing American trait and an inheritance of our British origins; in many ways, it can be said that the Brits invented the love of nature as we know it, but, of course, we have expanded and changed it in response to the unique geography of our land..

Some of the stories gathered in this volume are familiar to all who know Hemingway’s work (e.g., “The Killers”; “In Another Country”; “Big Two-Hearted River”). But there are lesser-known short pieces here worth reading, and they all to some extent savor of the land they’re in, as well as being about Nick Adams, who is of course Hemingway himself – as well as of course not.

 KITTY FOYLE, Christopher Morley

KittyFoylePOSTER-02This is perhaps the most successful novel of one of the great, and greatly neglected, American writers of the 20th century, and it is simply a delight to read. It was so popular that a movie was made from it, starring Ginger Rogers, who for her starring in it, won an Oscar as best actress. (The novel is much better than the film, of course.)

In my reading of what I consider the worthiest books, I take notes on a sheet of paper that I fold into their pages, and if I find the book especially interesting, my notes may number as many as 50 or 60; but my notes for KITTY FOYLE number 72.

To understand the book, one must first realize that it was published in 1939, near the end of the Great Depression in America. Kitty is a “working girl” in Philadelphia, and she tells her own delightful and richly thoughtful story. And her voice throughout, along with her many obiter dicta (in a manner of speaking) are wise and lovably sensitive.

Indeed, her casual observations are often exquisite; consider these two, which appear on the same page: she’s feeling her drinks and says, “I was like somebody walking in somebody else’s sleep.” And then later, on the same page, she says: “It wasn’t anybody’s fault; what is?”

 THE WORLD OVER, Edith Wharton

This collection of Edith Wharton’s stories contains her masterpiece, “Roman Fever” – whose action takes place in Rome, as its title proclaims, and yet the story is as “American” as baseball and the unassisted double play.

The story opens with two wealthy, middle-aged American ladies standing together as they enjoy the view of Rome from the terrace of a restaurant. Mrs. Slade and Mrs. Ansley have been lifelong acquaintances, if not exactly friends, for it has simply been their destiny that has woven their lives together.

What happens in this story is too good to relate, but let it suffice to say that “Roman Fever” is a splendidly developed Contest story that the reader will not soon forget.

And, of course, the values of these two women, including the brand of snobbery that decorates the arena of their contest, are all distinctly “American”.

THE AMERICAN LANGUAGE, H. L. Mencken

H_l_menckenHere, it’s best to quote from Mencken’s Preface to the First Edition:“[This book’s] chief excuse is its human interest, for it prods deeply into national idiosyncrasies and ways of mind, and that sort of prodding is always entertaining.  I am thus neither teacher, nor prophet, nor reformer, but merely inquirer.”

Also, Mencken’s delightful HAPPY DAYS says a lot about American life as he remembered it over a century ago. But it no doubt remains much the same, although with our hypocrisies dressed in different clothing. Then, too, one should mention Mencken’s delightfully acerbic essays in his PREJUDICES series.

 AMERICAN CAESAR: DOUGLAS MACARTHUR, William Manchester.

Authoritatively and perceptively written about a truly extraordinary man, a general with an unmistakable flamboyance and histrionic flair. Manchester is often considered one of the best biographers of our time. (I also very much enjoyed his THE LAST LION, about Churchill; but of course that doesn’t belong here, in spite of WC’s American mama.)

As for AMERICAN CAESAR: it is splendidly researched, vividly written and worthy of its subject.

HANGER STOUT, AWAKE!

At the risk of disgusting those who realize that my final choice may be rooted in nothing more than vanity and ignorance, I’ll list HANGER – crossing the line of taboo and violating all the proprieties in sight. Nevertheless, the novel has been praised for its grasp of the American idiom, and so I’ll risk listing it here.

It’s a first-person narrative by Hanger Stout, an Ohio teenager in the 60s, who doesn’t know a past participle from a cephalopod, but he has a good heart and in his own way, a clear head. He works in a filling station back in the days when attendants were hired to fill customers’ gas tanks. Hanger gains his nickname by his ability to hang by his hands longer than just about anybody else (a mild spoof on America’s obsession with athletics here), which threatens to make him, well, famous. Hanger is gentle, undemanding, quasi-illiterate and something of a funny saint.

Hiram Haydn, my editor at Harcourt Brace, said that Hanger was “all of us before we ate the apple.” Eudora Welty was one of many good people who praised the novel, and William Stafford, NBA-Award poet, listed it as his only title in an ANTAEUS series on “Neglected Books Of The 20th Century”.(With luck, it might become one of the neglected books of the millennium. Dare I aim so high?)

Jack Matthews (1925-2013) is the author of philosophical fiction. He has published over 20 titles, and his next collection of short stories, Soldier Boys will be published by Personville Press in April, 2014.  In 2011   Etruscan Press published Jack Matthews’s latest novel, THE GAMBLER’S NEPHEW.

 

 

 

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Is Sarah Palin smarter than Barack Obama? (By Author Jack Matthews)

(Editor’s Note: Author and distinguished professor of literature  Jack Matthews wrote this provocative essay in 2010 — publishing it first in the Athens News.  Over his writing career Matthews rarely wrote about politics — although he certainly kept up with scandals and the news.  He had always considered himself to be a conservative in the Teddy Roosevelt sense and admired Sarah Palin’s  populist and anti-elitist  rhetoric — critics be damned!)  

No doubt that title will astonish most readers, and as nearly as such things can be measured, 82% of you will be so irritated that you’ll be tempted to forego whatever ensues. Nevertheless, you should be patient, for it is a real question and it opens up real possibilities, not confined to the obvious difficulty in clearly defining exactly what “intelligence” is, as used by rational people–which is to say, people who are …  well, intelligent.

Sarah Palin

Sarah Palin

The greatest problem in recent political discourse, however, is the inability of the more rabid blue-state liberals, obsessed with feasting upon Sarah Palin’s image, to distinguish general intelligence from sophistication. Sophistication is a sort of intelligence, of course; but only a sort, and not the best, for it is superficial and of the moment; it is, in the old locution, simply being “with it.” It is epitomized by a recent New York Times piece  on Scott Selby, a photographer whom the Times once labeled “an arbiter of cool”; then later we’re told that his website is “part who’s who of global hip” — I mean, how sophisticated can a mere human being be? Continue reading

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RIP Ohio Author Jack Matthews (1925-2013): Book Collecting Enthusiast & Author of Philosophical Fiction

John Harold Matthews, Ohio fiction writer, essayist and book collector, died last week at the age of 88. He is survived by his wife Barbara, his  two daughters Barbiel and Cynthia and his son John.

His writing spanned  six decades, covering a variety of subjects and styles. In the sixties he published a volume of poetry (An Almanac for Twilight), a short story collection (Bitter Knowledge) and a novel (Hanger Stout, Awake!).  This  novel received commercial success, receiving positive reviews in  Time, New York Times  and praise  by people  as diverse as William Stafford and Eudora Welty (who described it as “blessed with honesty, clarity, directness, proportion and a lovely humor.”) Hanger  was about a thoughtful but happy-go-lucky small town boy  whose world revolves around cars and who is duped into participating in an imaginary sports event. The main character is accepting of his world and yet a keen observer of  people around him. The book’s  style shows a combination  of Hemingway’s restrained stoicism and Updike’s careful attention to surrounding detail.  Matthews quickly published several other novels: Charisma Campaigns is about the emotional life of a used car salesman who possesses an almost magical ability to persuade people; Beyond the Bridge is about a middle-aged man who escapes death when a bridge collapses and many people die. Tale of Asa Bean relates the crazy obsessions of a brilliant philosophy student   who plans to stage a very public protest about an art exhibition he abhors and  ends up making a fool of himself in the process. Pictures of the Journey Back tells about three  people who take a long road trip to Colorado to confront their pasts.

Book Collecting

Starting in the late seventies, Matthews turned his focus towards shorter forms.  He also cultivated a passion  for book collecting which was excessive even for literary/professorial types. Matthews  once estimated that his quest to buy and sell books at estate sales and library sales led him to travel  over a million miles in his cars. At some point, he had bought an old saloon in a small southeastern Ohio mining town specifically to store his ever-increasing book collection. In 1977 he published a practical guide on book collecting,  Collecting Rare Books for Pleasure and Profit, which contains a mixture of advice about appraising   antique books and anecdotes about his most notable finds. Matthews was fascinated by the marketplace of the used book trade  and how the relative value of books as collectibles   varied  over the decades.  When author and bookstore owner Larry McMurtry told Matthews that his store didn’t like customers who regarded book purchases simply as investments, Matthews scoffed, writing,

It is …. silliness to pretend that buying books “as an investment” is incompatible with scholarship or the true love of literature; Quite the contrary; it is the man who divides his love of literature from the material life who is the true heretic, using only the public library or the niggardly functional paperback for the leavening of his sensibility, and investing his money in Ford Motor Company and AT&T stock. What a dreary divarication is this, and how schizoid and truly mercenary is the man who plays such a nasty game against himself! To invest in books does not imply that the collector intends to sell them; he merely buys them with the conviction that his taste in honoring them will be validated by posterity and that – with effort and know-how comparable to those of other investors – this validation will have a dimension of financial profit.

Matthews believed that the psychological rewards of amassing a collection — any kind of collection — were considerable. “This joy to collect seems intrinsic,” he wrote, “for very young children possess it and soon extend the simple delights of touching and owning to include those more sophisticated delights of building and ordering.” There is the pleasure of the journey and stumbling upon a rare or brilliant title at the most unexpected time or place. Matthews’ penchant for book collecting led to various literary adventures, many of which he detailed in  essay collections (Booking in the Heartland, Booking Pleasures and Reading Matter) , published in the 1980s and 1990s. These humorous first-person essays would usually start by describing an odd  book or diary which Matthews acquired  during his booking adventures. Each of these  books might  seem “worthless” and poorly written  by contemporary literary standards, but Matthews would find beneath this inarticulateness all sorts of insights into how ordinary people thought and spoke.   Some examples of unusual books described in these essays include: a  Latin translation of the life of George Washington, a  19th century medical guide, math schoolbooks written entirely in verse,  steamboat schedules and  written accounts by preachers, young Civil War soldiers and  weary settlers about the new society emerging on the frontier.  Each essay would describe the book in a gently mocking way, but use the book to raise philosophical questions about the past and our difficulties in understanding it.

Finding Inspiration in 19th Century America

His passion for early Americana books provided lots of literary inspiration for Matthews. He started in the late seventies by publishing Tales of a Ohio Land, stories based on actual historical incidents from the 18th and 19th century. One typical story,  “Lucinda Hill is Born Again“ tells the tale of  a teenage girl who miraculously heals from a serious illness and seeks out John Chapman (aka Johnny Appleseed) to explain whether her nagging sense that she is already dead is actually true.   In this depiction, Johnny Appleseed is not a folkloric figure but a  sage who asks metaphysical questions. In the early 1980s, Matthews wrote Sassafras, a long comic epic novel about a junior phrenologist from the 19th century who travels through the midwest prairies in search of adventures, a woman and another phrenologist who stole his belongings.  Of this  novel, a New York Times critic wrote,  “the backwoods humor is entertaining, the masculine camaraderie dead center in the tradition of 19th-century frontier whoppers.”  During the 1980s and 1990s, Matthews wrote three more major works about the Civil War era — a still unpublished novel titled   Boys from Elm Grove, the Gambler’s Nephew (published later in 2011) and the Soldier Boys story collection (to be published in ebook form in 2014). Gambler’s Nephew relates the tale of how the accidental shooting of a runaway slave by an ardent abolitionist uncovers a whole web of hidden relationships in the community. Unlike the allegorical and satirical Sassafras, Gambler tackles more social and ethical issues, depicting 19th century morality in ways that would make the modern reader squeamish. Matthews doesn’t  pass judgement on beliefs and superstitions which might seem repugnant to the the modern reader. Instead Gambler’s Nephew  shows how people lived with such beliefs while still professing  themselves to be religious and upstanding.  The soon-to-be-published story collection Soldier Boys depicts how Civil War soldiers try to maintain a semblance of civility and boyish playfulness  amidst the horrors of war.  Not simply anti-war, these stories use the personal stories of  young soldiers as an opportunity to meditate on life and death itself. In the  collection’s first story, “Requiem on the Rappahannock,” a junior messenger from General Grant is tasked with delivering to another general the sad news that his wife died giving birth to a dead infant.  This messenger encounters all sorts of unexpected obstacles — including the frenzied celebrations by the regiment after a recent military victory. The messenger  begins to question his own commitment to deliver the message and wonders whether a society could ever deteriorate to the point where one man’s personal tragedy is no longer noteworthy.

Parallel to his interests in historical subjects, Matthews continued to write short stories about modern living throughout his career.  In the 1980s and early 1990s, Johns Hopkins U. Press published several of his short story collections:  Ghostly Populations, Crazy Women, Dirty Tricks, Dubious Persuasions and Storyhood as We Know It. (You can download a free Jack Matthews story sampler ebook here).   These collections are generally easy to read, realistic,  dialogue-driven, tightly-written with occasional rhetorical flourishes.  They involve  people who work at  supermarkets or gas stations or hair salons; they go to class reunions, cocktail parties or kill time in the company break room. Many characters are just unsophisticated folks with ordinary  problems. They have worries, obsessions and blind spots. Usually they don’t have grand ambitions, but are focused on the here-and-now. A number of them  foolishly cling to certain notions or secretly seethe about things they could not change. They are jealous or spiteful or seemingly irrational. Many have secrets or links to the past.   A number of  these stories focus on the mundane (and sometimes hilarious) struggles of  married couples  during various stages of married life (Mr. Matthews himself was happily married to his wife Barbara for 66 years). In the story “Family Plots,” a terminally ill attorney and his wife have a vicious  argument over his will and whether the wife should  cremate him. Each tries to trick the other into acceding to that person’s wishes. Eventually, one of them prevails, but only at the price of considerable anger and hurt feelings. The long argument may not have accomplished anything but it revealed  an emotional chasm between the two which neither had been aware of.

Although some of Mr. Matthews’ stories emphasize plot, usually there’s  not a lot of melodrama; often they end after a character stumbles upon a surprising self-revelation. Many end quietly, but explosively. Matthews wrote in many  genres, but it could be argued that  the short story genre made the best use of his literary talents. Matthews had a knack  for conjuring memorable characters  out of a few sentences  and then using the story as a vehicle to explore their inner lives. The short story genre also gave Matthews  ample opportunity to display his ear for  the  American vernacular  and describe people’s lives  with wit and irony.

Growing Up and Literary Influences

Jack Matthews grew up in Columbus neighborhood of Clintonville, Ohio (which he described as “virtually woodland and fields” when he was a boy). His father was born on a farm but later studied law under a country judge and eventually had his own law firm in Columbus. Jack Matthews himself once said “I had a wonderful childhood and didn’t know there was a Depression….though (I) remember World War 1 veterans selling apples on the street, but for some reason that didn’t register as a hardship.” He described himself as a “relaxed underachiever in high school.” Before college he served with the Coast Guard from 1943-1945;  Matthews remembered reading Jack London’s  The Sea Wolf  while working as a radioman on the Coast Guard Cutter Maclaine in the North Pacific, on anti-submarine patrol out of Sitka & Juneau (the very sea that the book’s protagonist Wolf Larsen sailed in).   He later studied English literature and  classical Greek at Ohio State University and married his wife Barbara at the age of 22. After  college, he worked at various jobs which (according to Matthews)  “gave me an excuse to knock on doors.” That included selling things door to door as a Fuller Brush Man and  selling encyclopedias. For a short time he worked as a private detective and later as a produce warehouseman. By the time  he and wife had started to raise two daughters, Matthews began working at the Post Office on afternoons and nights (which he did for nine years); that gave him time to write and attend graduate classes in the morning.

He published his first story in 1950 in an Irish literary magazine, and in 1959 he started teaching at Urbana College. After teaching there for five years, he switched to teaching  at Ohio University in Athens where he later became distinguished professor of English. He taught creative writing classes and critical approaches to drama and fiction. (In 2011, he published    A Worker’s Writebook, a writing guide based on  handouts he gave  to his creative writing students).

In high school, Matthews recalled being assigned to read Joseph Conrad’s “The Rover” and  “pausing on a page to contemplate how wonderful it must be to create such realities.” In college he read Balzac  and Twain and aspired to write “philosophical novels.” During college he majored in classical Greek, and his later essays  frequently brought in his knowledge of Greek literature into his essays.  This knowledge and passion  in classical Greek literature is most evident in his play Interview with the Sphinx which he wrote in the 90s and revised years later.  The Sphinx from ancient Greece is interviewed in modern times as though she were a celebrity pop star, and the interviewer guesses that Oedipus had not actually solved the riddle of the Sphinx but had only been  fooled into thinking so. (In fact, Matthews  published an essay in a classical journal during  the 1960s arguing the exact same thing). In the play — a philosophical comedy centered around  the paradoxes of language– the female Sphinx talks about the most famous literary characters of Greek mythology in a gossipy way — as though everybody was  still around.  ON HOMER: “I never was exactly sure which one Homer was. I’m positive he wasn’t the blind one, though; that was just a silly story they started telling a few centuries later.” ON OEDIPUS: “Eddie was terribly conceited, you know … of course he was smart and handsome and, oh, just had a way of carrying himself that impressed everybody. In spite of his foot.”

After college Matthews started reading the 19th century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer who was  known for his pessimism. Throughout his life Matthews   continued to return to Schopenhauer, finding him fascinating as a thinker, author and person. In the 90s and 2000s, Matthews used  Schopenhauer’s biography as the basis for two fiction projects. The first was Schopenhauer’s Will which Matthews described as  “somewhat freakish — not exactly fiction, biography or philosophy, but a mélange of all of these (with a one-act play thrown in).” Although no American publisher dared to publish this cerebral and experimental work, in 2002 a Czech publisher published the book in Czech translation. (Note: This year Nine Point Publishing announced plans to publish it in the US.) Another unpublished work,  The Evil Sparrow Dies Again is a play-within-a-novella about an imaginary battle between Lord Byron and Schopenhauer to win the love of an Italian countess.

Two other writers for whom Matthews had a special affinity were Ambrose Bierce and Christopher Morley. Bierce was not only from Ohio, but Matthews admired his gifts for aphoristic expression and caustic satire. In an essay on Bierce’s poetry, Matthews wrote that Bierce “had a gift for enmity, and loved to lampoon and pillory any living target that proved worthy . . . or unworthy, as the case may be.” Matthews  also admired the writings of Christopher Morley who he believed was  neglected by the literary establishment. In a 2007 essay on Morley, Matthews writes:

By some mystical combination of upbringing, nature and nurture,  (Morley) seems to have been inoculated against the existential ANGST so fashionable in twentieth-century literature. He could not help but LOOK at the world, seeing things in the humdrum quotidian that no one else could see, and rejoicing the plenitude of everyday life. Happily extroverted, he was gifted with passionate attentiveness that illuminates his prose in virtually every sentence, just as it evidently illuminated the hours, days and weeks of his life.

Final Years

Despite Matthews’ early desire to succeed as a “philosophical novelist,” and his lifelong fascination with gloomy Continental philosophers, the last two decades awoke in Matthews an admiration both for Morley’s writing and  Morley’s appreciation for the small, fleeting aspects to life. In his  final decade  Matthews continued teaching part time while spending time with his wife and family. He continued writing of course — stories and plays and essays — but also polishing longer manuscripts in various stages of completion. Among his most notable projects in that last decade  was a series of prose pieces called Abruptions: 5 Minute Tales to Open the Mind  (named because of the abrupt way each piece ended) which he published  under the pseudonym Matt Hughes. Not exactly short stories, these 1 or 2 page pieces read more like fables;  there was no plot .. only incidents with poetic and philosophical resonances.  They are less concerned with delineating individual character than demonstrating how ordinary  situations can change the way one perceives the world. The book’s introduction summarizes how these pieces work:  “By what is both presented and judiciously excluded, abruptions can reach down to dimensions of wonder and speculation that are commonly thought to be the proper domain of poetry…. it is the narrow and pointed instruments that penetrate deepest.”

One of Matthew’s favorite abruptions was the first one — which hints at farewells and transformations:

THE  LESSON

This was one of his first memories.  He was five years old and begged to join the older boys in their baseball games.  They finally relented, gave him an old glove that hung almost to his knees when he put it on. And to keep him out of the way, they placed him in the “outfield” beyond a ragged row of barberry shrubs.

From this position, the little boy couldn’t see any of the other players.  Nevertheless, he faithfully kept gazing up into the sky above the little shrubs.  Waiting, waiting, day after day.

Then late one afternoon it happened.  He saw a dark point in the sky.  It grew swiftly bigger and bigger until it hit him in the face, knocking him down and bloodying his nose.
This was a mystical experience for him, and he never forgot the lesson, which is that there are some things which grow bigger and bigger, and then there is this brief blunt painful spasm of darkness, after which they are gone and you find yourself lying on the ground, looking up at the sky.

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Here’s a brief collection of works by and about Jack Matthews.

Robert Nagle is a Houston-based writer and founder of Personville Press, which produces ebook versions of Jack Matthews books. He is working on a collection of  essays about the life and writings of Matthews. The contents of this essay are shareable under a Creative Commons Attribution — No Derivatives license.

Do you have any memories or anecdotes about Jack Matthews? If you do, this website will soon run a story featuring these reminsciences. Contact Robert Nagle (idiotprogrammer AT gmail com ) to send your contributions. 

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Funeral information for Ohio Author Jack Matthews: Saturday December 7

The funeral service is to be December 7th, with a 12:00-2pm visitation, and 2pm service at Jager & Sons Funeral Home, Morris Ave., Athens, Ohio. After a minister speaks, there will be invitations to whomever wishes to get up to speak briefly about Jack.

Here’s a link to the official obituary in the Athens Times and a link to the guest book. (By the way, my “literary obituary” should go up in a day or so). The official obituary is printed below:

John H. “Jack” Matthews, age 88 of Athens, died Thursday morning, Nov. 28, 2013 at his home. He was an American novelist, short story writer, essayist, playwright and Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Creative Writing at Ohio University. He published seven novels, seven collections of short stories, a novella and eight volumes of essays. He was an avid book collector, and many of his book finds served as a basis for his essays and the historical topics he explored in his fiction. He was also the recipient of numerous literary and professional awards.

He was born July 22, 1925 in Columbus, the son of the late John H. & Lulu Grover Matthews. He received his B.A. in classics and English and his M.A. in English from The Ohio State University. He was a U.S. Coast Guard veteran of World War II serving aboard the Cutter Maclaine in the Northern Pacific Theatre on anti-submarine patrol out of Sitka and Juneau, Alaska. He was a member of the Athens Rotary Club, where he was a Paul Harris Fellow, and the Aldus Society.

Jack is survived by his loving wife of 66 years, Barbara Jane Reese Matthews; his children- Cynthia Ann Warnock, married to Wyman Warnock of Dacula, Ga., Barbara-Ellen Matthews-Saunders, married to John Saunders of Chesterhill and John Matthews, married to Cathy Hart Matthews of Lore City; seven grandchildren- Jed (Lori) Warnock, Casey (Kelley) Warnock, Catherine Warnock, Smith (Natalie) Weir, Eric (Sarah) Platt, Jack (Lindsay) Matthews and Clay Matthew and his fiancé Casey Passen; six great grandchildren- Brandon, Ansley, Hailey & Peyton Warnock and Aidan & Noah Weir.

Besides his parents he is preceded in death by a sister, Dorothy Matthews Donahue.

A memorial service will be held Saturday, Dec. 7th at 2:00pm at Jagers & Sons Funeral Home, Athens with Pastor Lynn Miller officiating. Friends may call Saturday 12:00 noon until time of service. Military rites will be conducted at the funeral home.

In lieu of flowers, contributions may be made in Jack’s memory to the Athens Rotary Club, P.O. Box 681, Athens, Ohio 45701.

Please share a memory, a note of condolence or sign the online register book at www.jagersfuneralhome.com.

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Announcing the Death of Jack Matthews, Ohio Author + The Lesson (A valedictory story)


Jack Matthews was a literary giant for this nation whose value and importance will only increase with time. He was also a constant source of joy and hilarity. His stories displayed a keen understanding of human motivations and a knack for recognizing beauty and humor in the smallest of things.

Early on Thanksgiving morning, Ohio author Jack Matthews died after a long-standing illness. He was 88.  I will be making a bigger announcement and posting my “literary obituary” about him this weekend, but for now, here is a flash fiction he wrote from his soon-to-be-published Abruptions flash fiction collection. Three years ago in an audio interview Jack Matthews mentioned that  Abruptions contained 88 short stories, a number which was formally interesting because it corresponded to the number of keys on a piano.  In a kind of cosmic irony, that same number 88  also corresponded with each year he lived on earth.

THE  LESSON (By Jack Matthews)

This was one of his first memories.  He was five years old and begged to join the older boys in their baseball games.  They finally relented, gave him an old glove that hung almost to his knees when he put it on. And to keep him out of the way, they placed him in the “outfield” beyond a ragged row of barberry shrubs.

From this position, the little boy couldn’t see any of the other players.  Nevertheless, he faithfully kept gazing up into the sky above the little shrubs.  Waiting, waiting, day after day.

Then late one afternoon it happened.  He saw a dark point in the sky.  It grew swiftly bigger and bigger until it hit him in the face, knocking him down and bloodying his nose.
This was a mystical experience for him, and he never forgot the lesson, which is that there are some things which grow bigger and bigger, and then there is this brief blunt painful spasm of darkness, after which they are gone and you find yourself lying on the ground, looking up at the sky.

(Flash fiction from “Abruptions”, which will be published in 2014).

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2010 Audio Interview Now Available

“Literature is the least pure of all the arts, and that is its richness and power. It’s a temporal art like a symphony; it has periodicities, it has rhythms —  prose itself has sound, it evokes visual imagery like painting….” Jack Matthews, Interview 2010

I had already interviewed Mr. Matthews by email in 2009, and so naturally when I visited Mr. Matthews in Ohio in 2010, I had to interview him on various other topics which we never got around to in the first interview. I set up the interview in his personal writing room. (During the interview, his wife came in to pick up the breakfast dishes, and I believe the dog  came in during the middle of it as well — you can probably hear it).  We had a delightful talk. Matthews was talkative and full of erudition and digressions and personal anecdotes.  I made it a point to try to ask him questions he hadn’t been asked before. As a matter of fact, I had just finished the quirky novel Tale of Asa Bean (which I loved)  and had just started to read the historical novel Sassafras — which was a great comic novel about 19th century America.  I also asked him to talk about Gambler’s Nephew (which was published in 2011) and Schopenhauer’s Will (which should be published in late 2013 or early 2014). I hope this discussion sheds  insight about Matthews’ approach to fiction and what sort of things inspire him.

Finally in the last 5 minutes Mr. Matthews reads a flash story called “The Lesson”.

Audio Download: Mp3 file (46MB– 48 minutes long) 

4:40  Gambler’s Nephew

14:40 Talking about Schopenhauer’s Will and his fascination with Schopenhauer’s life

21:46: Talking about Abruptions

25:00 Talking about Novel, Asa Bean

35:30 What JM was doing at 25 — Early Writing Life

40:00 Talking about Hanger Stout, Awake

46:00 Reading of  the flash story “The Lesson” (from Abruptions)

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Jack Matthews on Actors

Here’s some brief thoughts which Jack Matthews made about actors and the theatre:

Since writing a book on Schopenhauer a few years ago, I often find myself thinking about the dark sentiments voiced by that old philosopher. My thoughts often revolve around his quaint notion that the lives of actors are perfect prescriptions for madness, because every night they must step forth upon a stage and pretend to be other people. Since the gloomy thinker arrived at this idea in the heyday of faculty psychology, long before our “Modern Age of Enlightenment”, he should perhaps be forgiven its crudity; and yet, I find the pronouncement interesting and possessed of an antiquated charm—and even a quirky sort of validity.

As one who has undertaken the writing of plays after years of publishing books of fiction, non-fiction and poetry, I think of actors as being among those for whom I most intimately and instinctively write. Actors are, of course, my readers, and they must be shrewd and thorough and capable of finding the oxygen in the language they are given and breathing it in. Later, having memorized my words, they will speak them aloud before an audience, who then become secondary readers, of sorts. I still hold that sentimental old belief in the “magic of theatre,” and I cannot imagine a more intimate communication with others than that in which they will, in all their various and individual ways, give voice to words which I have first heard in silence.

No matter how ephemeral or limited or flawed my plays may prove to be, they will have their moment of truth, of being alive. This is a Pirandellian notion, to be sure; and it deviates from my original faith in being a writer; for part of my mind will forever be wedded to the printed page (I collect old and rare books, and write books about them). Still, it is the words that are primary, after all; and the fact that you are now reading these words gives further testimony to how words can live lives of their own—not only in the environment of the printed page, but in their development and outgrowth into the voices of living people who have taken a sort of benign madness upon themselves in pretending to be people who have no real existence. As playwrights, we are first privileged to know our characters and hear them speak; but as with our biological children, we rejoice to see them grow into their own realities, and speak in voices beyond our hearing.

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New Jack Matthews Novel to be Published by Nine Point Publishing

It’s official. Nine Point Publishing has announced that it will be publishing Schopenhauer’s Will, a hybrid novel  based on the life and thoughts of Schopenhauer. Publication date is listed on the Nine Point Publishing website  in Fall 2014.

In a 2009 interview, Mr. Matthews described the project — which was published in Czech translation before it was actually published in English.

My most recent published book is SCHOPENHAUEROVA VULE, a Czech language translation of SCHOPENHAUER’S WILL, brought out by H&H Publishers in Prague. This is something of an anomaly because it has yet to be published in English (one editor rejected it, saying it was “too experimental and too cerebral” — the latter reason a rather odd one, perhaps, for rejecting a novel about a philosopher; but that’s what she said, and I have no reason to doubt her good will). Perhaps a more cogent reason, however, is the fact that the book is somewhat freakish — not exactly fiction, biography or philosophy, but a mélange of all of these (with a one-act play thrown in).

To jump the gun a bit,  here’s one of the poems (republished from  the same interview) which will appear in  the upcoming book:

Schopenhauer’s Reflections Upon Humor

	In effect, he argued that every word denotes a class,
	But the members of that class are all unique,
	tellingly different from one another--no two beetles
	are alike, no shoes or sneezes--and when we speak
	of justice, liberty, love or similar abstractions,
	who can clearly understand what then is meant?
	"Liberty" can signify mere selfishness and greed,
	And yet, the word remains the same, indifferent
	To the use it's been corrupted to promote.
	And the word "love" will never literally apply
	To more than one such passion that enflames
	The loins and lays the heart to siege.
	It's in this theory that one begins to sense
	The principle which signifies that there is irony
	Inherent simply in the way words work,
	For nothing ever named can fit the name,
	And in the soberest speech there is some quirk
	Of comical discrepancy. That irony is intrinsic
	To the very language that defines our world
	Is a proud discovery. And so it is that ever after,
	In every word we speak, the intellect hears laughter.

One final note.  This book will be print only. In a private email to me, Jack Matthews mentioned that he chose Nine Point Publishing because  it  “produces beautiful books, & I like the idea of Schop coming out elegantly attired.”

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March Sale: Interview with the Sphinx Audio Play and Ebook

Interview with the Sphinx (Audio Play Only – downloadable mp3s)
Buy from CDBaby $3.99. (Also on itunes).

Interview with the Sphinx  (Audio play downloadable mp3s + play ebook)
Add to Cart  $4.99

 BIG AUDIO/EBOOK BUNDLE (Sphinx audio play + play ebook +  Hanger Stout, Awake!  + A Worker’s Writebook)
Add to Cart $6.99

View CartNote: It is not necessary to create a paypal account to make a purchase (Explain).

Audio Play Description

sphinx-cover-web In this provocative & immensely irritating comic play, the Sphinx from ancient Greece is interviewed in modern times as though she were a celebrity pop star. The problem is she never answers any questions — never directly anyway. Instead she prefers just dishing the dirt on everybody. ON HOMER: “I never was exactly sure which one Homer was. I’m positive he wasn’t the blind one, though; that was just a silly story they started telling a few centuries later”. ON OEDIPUS: “Eddie was terribly conceited, you know … of course he was smart and handsome and, oh, just had a way of carrying himself that impressed everybody. In spite of his foot.” Bit by bit the Interview learns that what happens in Greek legend didn’t happen exactly the way Sophocles described it. Fortunately, the Sphinx offers the Interviewer another riddle … if only he could figure out what exactly it is! This witty 67 minute audio play stars Jill Brumer as the Sphinx and Neal Gage as the Interviewer. Part Tom Stoppard, part Monty Python, part Oscar Wilde, this play by Jack Matthews combines philosophical paradoxes with fast-paced verbal pyrotechnics. It offers the perfect antidote to people who remembered ancient literature as nothing but stuffy and melodramatic characters with hard-to-pronounce names.   Other Places to Buy the Audio Playcdbaby $3.99 | itunes $3.99  |  Amazon USA $8.99 | emusic $5.99  

jill334small Jill Brumer (the “Sphinx”) is a Houston actress originally from South Carolina with an MFA  in Media & Performing Arts at Savannah College of Art and Design. She is an avid reader, college professor, actor, all-around artsy/crafty person and fan of Sherlock Holmes.  She  has actually taught the play Oedipus Rex to her college students.
Neal Gage 69small Neal Gage (the “Interviewer”)  is a Houston actor/writer/director/teacher whose comic sketch  videos have appeared on Funny or Die and Youtube. He finds comic inspiration from middle school students and  loves to edit himself into major motion pictures.
Jack-matthews-author-profile-small Playwright Jack Matthews is the author of 10+ plays and 20+ books (including short stories, novels and essays). Winner of the Guggenheim, a play competition and several arts grants, Matthews has been anthologized widely, translated into several languages and nominated for a National Book Award.

Music for the play comes from the album “Listen” by Tryad (Creative Commons BY-SA 3.0).

About the Ebook

This ebook contains the complete script used for the 2013 audio production plus another expanded two act version of the same play. This expanded two act version is titled “Dr. Freud and the Sphinx,” and includes Florence Nightingale and Sigmund Freud characters (who serve as the Greek chorus).

Other Places to Buy the Ebook: Amazon: USA | UK |DE |FR | IT | ES | BR |JP | Barnes and Noble || Lulu || Apple || Smashwords || Kobo

Preface to the Ebook

This edition provides two versions of the same play: a two act version with four characters, and a one act version with two characters. The recent audio production uses the one act version in this ebook.

To explain why this edition has two versions of the same play, it is necessary to explain   this  play’s history.

In 1992 Michigan Quarterly Review published an excerpt of the play  Interview with the Sphinx, and in 1993 the full version of the script was published by the Dramatic Publishing company. At about the same time, Logan Elm Press and Papermill at Ohio State University published a special limited version of the play with original illustrations by Eric May. Aside from minor typographical discrepancies, the Logan Elm Press edition contains the exact same text as the Dramatic Publishing edition.

Since that time, Matthews made a large number of minor revisions to the original play and expanded it to a two act play by adding two more characters (Sigmund Freud and Florence Nightingale) who serve as a kind of Greek chorus for the action. The two act version alternates between Freud-Nightingale scenes and Sphinx-Interviewer scenes; even though the  two act version begins and ends with Freud and Nightingale, the play’s primary focus is still with the Interviewer and the Sphinx. Freud and Nightingale – like a typical Greek chorus – are there mainly for commentary and interpretation.

Within this ebook, the two act version is called Dr. Freud and the Sphinx while the one act version keeps the original Interview with the Sphinx title. The one act version lasts about 65 minutes, while the two act version runs about 105-100 minutes. The one act version is identical to the two act version except that all scenes with Freud and Nightingale have been removed. To make things easier, the entire ebook is called Interview with the Sphinx; this should not be construed as implying that the one act version is more canonical or preferred.

So which version is better (or best)? I faced that question when producing an audio play. I had read the 1993 edition first and the two act version later, so that might have predisposed me slightly to the one act version. I think the ending of the two act version is easier to digest; on the other hand, I like how the shorter version focuses unrelentingly on the riddle question. The two act version reads more like a novella, which might be good or bad. A resourceful director could probably stage either version, but producing it as an audio play has the advantage of calling attention to the wordplay and rhetorical paradoxes.

In addition to serving as a kind of “Greek chorus,” Freud and Nightingale add dramatic variety and give the play a more concrete grounding in human history. Although Freud and Nightingale exist in an unspecified time and place, they represent actual people who are shaped by the era they came from. Unlike the Sphinx and the Interviewer (who are basically literary abstractions), Freud and  Nightingale speak with the knowledge of life’s mundane aspects – going to school, eating, falling in love. Both are healers and problem solvers; at the same time, they approach society’s problems in an objective, dispassionate way. The ending of the one act play is abrupt and possibly disturbing, while the ending of the two act play (Freud’s final soliloquy) is more conversational, even-tempered and even light-hearted. So each play has a different tone.

Some miscellaneous notes. First, the Interviewer refers to an article about the Sphinx riddle. In fact, Mr. Matthews had himself published such an article more than 20 years before he wrote the play (“The Riddle and the Staff,” THE CEA CRITIC, Vol. XXX #9, 6-1968, pp. 3-5). The Thomas DeQuincy essay is real – it’s called “The Sphinx’s Riddle” and is found in Memorials and Other Papers Volume 2 at Project Gutenberg.

Starting in the 1990s, Matthews started using a number of European figures as literary subjects – most notably Arthur Schopenhauer (Matthews has already written a play, a poetry collection and a novel about him). By this time, Matthews had already written a number of plays. Although Sphinx is one of the few formally published plays by Matthews, quite a number have been published in the last decade especially. About half use Mr. Matthews’ real name, while the remaining plays use his pseudonym, “Matt Hughes.”

See also: Jack Matthews’ thoughts about actors and the theatre.

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Coming Soon: Soldier Boys: A Short Story Collection by Jack Matthews

bugle boy cover3-cropped-smaller87 year old Author Jack Matthews has published seven short story collections which have been reviewed favorably by New York Times Book Review, London Review of BooksLA Times, Washington Book World and USA Today. In addition, Matthews has published hundreds of stories in smaller literary magazines around the U.S.  Despite the prodigious output, it’s been a while since the last Matthews short story collection has been published…..actually, it’s been 20 years!

To rectify that, Personville Press  will publish four new short story collections by Jack Matthews.   The first collection, Soldier Boys,  will be published in August 2013. It depicts  how ordinary Civil War soldiers deal with the rigors of war and have to confront life-and-death questions. Ironically, war itself is not so much the main subject of the book as how individuals deal with the insanity while trying to live a normal life…and ultimately how  they make their peace with it.   Like other short stories by Matthews, they are suspenseful, tricky, humorous, contemplative and even spiritual.  Reading about the Civil War doesn’t sound like “fun reading, ” but it is certainly relevant in an age where US soldiers are being sent to fight in faraway places for controversial reasons.  The stories are less about the subject of war but than  the challenges of growing up in dangerous circumstances and learning enough resilience to survive.

This collection  reflects  Matthew’s interest and fascination with 19th Century America. His most recent novel, the Gambler’s Nephew depicts how the accidental death of an escaped slave has repercussions on an entire town. His novel Sassafras (published in the 1980s) depicted a traveling phrenologist who has all sorts of comic misadventures during his travels. Matthews has also collected lots of soldier memoirs and written essays about some of them for his nonfiction books.

This story collection will be published as ebook in late Spring. After this ebook, another volume of short stories (called Abruptions: 5 Minute Tales to Awaken the Mind) will be published in Summer, 2013.

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