StoryWeb: Storytime for Grownups features stories you’ll love to hear – fiction, memoir, poetry, film, song, oral storytelling, and more. Listen as master storyteller Linda Tate talks about literature and other stories each week – and be sure to catch those special weeks when Linda reads the stories to you. Visit TheStoryWeb.com to learn more, share your thoughts about this week’s story, and subscribe to a free weekly email highlighting the featured story.
174: Chad Everett: "Medical Center"
This week on StoryWeb: Chad Everett’s TV show, Medical Center.
If only I could start with the theme song to Medical Center! If I were telling you this story in person, I’d risk humming a few bars, complete with an ambulance-like scream of notes. But alas, I’m left with mere words to conjure up for you the magic that was Medical Center, an hour-long weekly hospital drama starring Chad Everett as the hip, young Dr. Joe Gannon.
Chad Everett and Medical Center were literally my claims to fame when I was in college in the early 1980s at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, commonly known as UMSL. By this time, the 1970s-era television show was in late-night reruns. My boyfriend and I got hooked on the show when we’d catch it after getting home from our night shifts at work. We got home about 12:30, and Medical Center came on at 1:00. That theme song was a siren call of another sort, calling to us to put away the cares of the day and join Chad in fighting for the welfare of yet another patient. It became a game between us to see who could guess the outcome of the episode first, and I learned to play the theme song on my violin.
Both of us were involved in student government, and as we sat in the Student Government Association office one day, we wondered aloud just how ridiculous a group could get recognized by Student Affairs and become eligible for student activity funding.
My boyfriend seized on an idea. “Let’s propose forming the Chad Everett Fan Club of UMSL,” he said. “You can be president, and I’ll be vice president.”
The rest, as they say, is history. In no time at all, we developed a patter, a shtick about why a university needed a fan club dedicated to Chad Everett. We emphasized Chad’s appeal to pre-med students, theater students, and history majors who might want to trace Chad’s role in the country’s transition from the wet look to the dry look. For it was true: in the first season of Medical Center, Chad sported hair full of Brill Cream, but in the second season, he had hair blown dry into a perfect coif. And when anyone questioned the sincerity of our club, we’d sum up by saying that even a third-world country had named itself after Chad.
The club was – as we had suspected it would be – quickly approved as a recognized student organization, and while we never applied for funding, we could have. In the ensuing months, we held club meetings at our apartment and even got the Dean of Student Affairs in on things. We’d say, “Hi, Dean, how’s it going?” He would respond correctly, “We won’t know until we run more tests.”
Soon a story about the Chad Everett Fan Club was published in the student newspaper. (You can still read the original article online.) Then a national publication for university students, Nutshell, got in on the action. Before I knew it, Rip and Read wire dispatch, known for its zany stories, had picked up the news. It seemed the Chad Everett Fan Club was a sensation.
A month or so before graduation, I got an unexpected phone call. The woman calling introduced herself as Mira Velimirovic, a researcher for Late Night with David Letterman. It was 1983, and Letterman was still a relative newcomer to late-night TV. His show was a huge hit, so I couldn’t believe it when Mira said that she’d read the Rip and Read article about my club and that she wanted to book me on the show.
Everything happened at lightning speed. I sent Mira all the clips I had about the Chad Everett Fan Club, and we talked another time or two on the phone, as I regaled her with one Chad joke after another. I told her that yes, we did have club meetings and that club members liked to sport surgical smocks. (Conveniently enough, they were also a quite popular fashion item at the time.) I told her we were all thinking of getting vanity plates so that when we lined up our cars, you’d see “I’m only thinking of the welfare of my patient,” a sentiment Chad as Dr. Joe Gannon express
173: Cynthia Morris: "Chasing Sylvia Beach"
This week on StoryWeb: Cynthia Morris’s novel, Chasing Sylvia Beach.
What do you get when you combine time travel, intriguing literary history, Paris, and romance? Why, Cynthia Morris’s novel, Chasing Sylvia Beach, of course!
I know Cynthia from participating regularly in what she previously called Free Write Flings, month-long excursions that have “flingers” writing freely for fifteen minutes each day in response to various “prompts.” I’ve dipped into Cynthia’s Free Write Flings twice a year for the last several years – every October and February – to generate ideas for StoryWeb. Go behind the scenes with us to see how it works at Beth Hayden’s website. Note that Cynthia has just launched a new version of this month-long experience. It’s called The Devoted Writer.
Cynthia is a well-known and expert writing and creativity coach. Through her business, Original Impulse, she offers online workshops, individual coaching, books to help your creative practice, and travel opportunities. Based in Denver, Cynthia leads courses in Paris quite often, leading other creative spirits through the streets of her favorite city as they create illustrated journals.
But Cynthia is very much a writer in her own right. Can’t travel to Paris with Cynthia? No worries. You can get an intimate look at the City of Light through Cynthia’s 2012 novel, Chasing Sylvia Beach.
Sylvia Beach was, of course, the owner of the famed Parisian bookstore, Shakespeare and Company. Cynthia makes Beach’s 1930s Paris accessible to us nearly a century later with the magical twists and turns of highly delightful time travel.
When Denver bookstore clerk Lily Heller visits Paris in the present day, she’s captivated by the history of the city, especially all the literary lore. She imagines all of the ex-pat Americans writing and mingling on the Left Bank, often at Shakespeare and Company.
How perfect, then, when Lily slips through a crack in time and finds herself in the 1930s Paris she’s been dreaming of. As she clatters around Paris on her bicycle, we hold our breath with her as she encounters one amazing historical person after another and let it out again when she lands a job at Sylvia Beach’s bookstore.
Before long, Lily’s got a romance on her hands with Paul and a mentor in Sylvia Beach. Will she ever want to step back through the crack in time and return to her life in twenty-first century Denver?
You’ll have to read Chasing Sylvia Beach to find out where Lily’s adventures lead her. As you join her on the streets of Paris, you’ll feel like you’ve been transported back in time as well.
Learn more about Sylvia Beach at the Shakespeare and Company website. You can also learn why Cynthia has been obsessed with Sylvia Beach for years – be sure to check out the video of Cynthia talking about Beach!
And if you’re an aspiring or experienced writer, artist, or some other kind of creative spirit, consider joining Cynthia for one of her many offerings. Visit Amazon to buy your own copy of Chasing Sylvia Beach or stop in at Cynthia’s online shop and the Original Impulse library for resources that will nurture your creative life.
Visit thestoryweb.com/morris for links to all these resources.
Listen now as Cynthia Morris reads from Chasing Sylvia Beach.
172: James H. Cone: "Martin & Malcolm & America: A Dream or a Nightmare"
This week on StoryWeb: James H. Cone’s book Martin & Malcolm & America: A Dream or a Nightmare.
It has been more than 25 years since I read Rev. James H. Cone’s book Martin & Malcolm & America: A Dream or a Nightmare. I was teaching an English 101 course focused on the writing of the Civil Rights Movement, and I wanted to learn more about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X and to understand better the relationship between them, the intersection points, if any, between them. Of course, I’d already read Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech and his landmark “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” and I’d read The Autobiography of Malcolm X.
But it was James H. Cone’s 1991 book, Martin & Malcolm & America, that helped me to deeply understand how the two seemingly diametrically opposed civil rights leaders were actually two sides of the same coin. There was so much more to say than that Dr. King preached nonviolence and that Malcolm X advocated violence. Indeed, it was not even accurate to say that Malcolm X “advocated violence.” It was more that he advocated or understood the need for self-defense. Particularly in his softened views after his pilgrimage to Africa and to Mecca, Malcolm X embraced a position of love as much as Dr. King did.
Cone’s book tells the full story of Dr. King and the full story of Malcolm X and the story of their evolving relationship with each other’s viewpoints. It helped me to realize fully and deeply the important and crucial role both of these leaders played in the Civil Rights Movement as their messages resonated against each other, as they responded to each other’s critique and moved closer to each other’s ways of thinking.
It is far too easy for Americans today to embrace King’s words, to share in his vision of an American dream of racial justice and equality. Americans find King’s words inspiring – but also in many ways palatable, manageable, acceptable.
But many of us are still rattled by Malcolm X’s direct, hard-hitting, even harsh ideas, his assessment that blacks were living in a nightmare realized. In his earlier days, he denounced whites as the devil, though in later days he brought more love to his view of white Americans. Still, his words – both pre- and post-Mecca – are raw and unfiltered. They do give African Americans the right to fight back in self-defense. After reading and absorbing Malcolm X’s teachings, it is impossible not to see Frederick Douglass’s fight against the slave breaker Mr. Covey in any other light. He was fighting back in self-defense, just as Malcolm X would have called him to do. He was literally fighting for his life.
Rev. James H. Cone, who was a minister during the Civil Rights era, has been a professor at Union Theological Seminary in New York City since 1970. Though you might not know his name, rest assured he is a recognized intellectual leader in the fight for justice for African Americans. In a 2008 interview with Terry Gross on Fresh Air, Cone explains his theory of “black liberation theology,” which draws inspiration from both Dr. King and Malcolm X, as "mainly a theology that sees God as concerned with the poor and the weak."
Dr. King and Malcolm X met only once – and that was quite accidentally when they ran into each other in the halls of the U.S. Capitol building in March 1964. But their lives and philosophies and teachings influenced each other more than most of us know. If you want an excellent introduction to and exploration of the Civil Rights Movement and its two seemingly different leaders, I encourage you to read Martin & Malcolm & America, an outstanding comparative intellectual biography in every way. It changed my thinking and understanding profoundly and fundamentally more than a quarter century ago.
Visit thestoryweb.com/cone for links to all these resources and to watch Rev. James H. Cone in conversation with Dr. Cornel West as they discuss West’s book Black Prophetic Fire. Wes
171: Malcolm X and Alex Haley: "The Autobiography of Malcolm X"
This week on StoryWeb: Malcolm X and Alex Haley’s book, The Autobiography of Malcolm X.
Malcolm X wrote his famed autobiography in collaboration with African American journalist Alex Haley (most famous for his epic book Roots: The Saga of an American Family). If you are one of the many Americans who believe Malcolm X espoused violence, even hate, I urge you to read this compelling book. It reveals Malcolm X as a much more nuanced thinker and leader than depicted in mainstream media.
The Autobiography of Malcolm X resonates with so much other American literature before and after its publication in 1965 after Malcolm X was assassinated on February 21 of that year. Writing his first slave narrative more than a century earlier, Frederick Douglass emphasized literacy as the crucial key to freedom. Malcolm X, too, speaks of the transformation he experienced in prison when he came under the influence of a fellow inmate who inspired him to read voraciously and thereby educate himself. But Douglass also indicates that the physical act of fighting back against the slave breaker Mr. Covey was a turning point in his life as well. Similarly, Malcolm X, rather than promoting violence, reserved the right to self-defense, to fight back physically if pushed into a corner. Douglass’s story of transformation is pivotal not only because it tells how his journey to literacy liberated him but also because it was at the moment he defeated Covey that Douglass became a man – and Malcolm X builds on the tradition Douglass established.
The Autobiography of Malcolm X also looks forward to Jimmy Santiago Baca’s memoir, A Place to Stand. In this book and in the film based on it, Baca tells a similar story of slowly, methodically, hungrily learning to read and write bit by bit while incarcerated in the infamous Arizona State Prison. Baca literally learns to read and write from scratch. Although Malcolm X was already literate when he entered prison, he had not finished school, and his passion for reading, learning, and gaining knowledge grew exponentially during his imprisonment. Both men were deeply changed when their prison time opened them up to larger ideas via the written word.
Malcolm X has usually been portrayed as the polar opposite of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. It is true that Malcolm X, who espoused self-defense, even if that self-defense is violent, disagreed for most of his life with Dr. King, who espoused nonviolent direct action. But after his trip to Africa and to Mecca in 1964, Malcolm X repudiated the Nation of Islam and spoke out against racism while continuing to call for black self-determination and black self-defense.
Malcolm X and Alex Haley worked on The Autobiography of Malcolm X between 1963 and 1965, before and after the trip to Africa and Mecca. That time span gives readers the opportunity to witness a spiritual conversion of sorts, as Malcolm X ultimately calls for black pride. Moreover, he calls for white allies to be “out on the battle lines of where America’s racism really is—and that’s their own home communities. . . . That’s where the sincere whites who really mean to accomplish something have got to work.”
The transformative experience of gaining literacy and thus gaining a kind of inner freedom, the tale of an incomparable man’s role in the Civil Rights Movement, the story of a journey from the Nation of Islam to Mecca to an embracing of nonracist black pride – The Autobiography of Malcolm X is this and so much more.
Too often, Americans, especially white Americans, equate Dr. King with love and Malcolm X with hate, Dr. King with nonviolence and Malcolm X with violence. But as James H. Cone shows in Martin & Malcolm & America, the two men’s journeys brought them closer together in their thinking toward the end of their lives, both of which were cut short by assassination. Next week, I’ll offer a look at Cone’s book.
To learn more about Malcolm X, read his autobiography – and al
170: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: "Letter from Birmingham Jail"
This week on StoryWeb: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s essay “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”
In April 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was in Birmingham, Alabama, protesting racism and racial segregation in the city. He was arrested on Good Friday for demonstrating, which a circuit court judge had prohibited. While he was in solitary confinement, Dr. King wrote what is arguably the most important letter in American history. It was addressed to the white clergy of Birmingham, who had publicly criticized Dr. King for getting involved in a matter far from his home in Atlanta. Dr. King began drafting his responses on the very newspaper in which the eight white ministers had published their “call for unity.” According to the Washington Post, he continued writing on “scraps of paper, paper towels and slips of yellow legal paper smuggled into his cell.”
The justly famous letter – now known as “Letter from Birmingham Jail” – draws both from the early Christian tradition of letter writing (often from jails) and the African American preaching tradition. Following Paul’s strategy of writing epistles while incarcerated for his beliefs (the origin of several books in the New Testament), Dr. King reaches out to his fellow brethren of the clergy, appealing to them on the basis of their shared faith. At the same time, Dr. King draws on the rich oratory of the black church. While this letter was printed in a variety of publications and was therefore meant to be read, it bears reading aloud to hear the cadence of the prose.
Dr. King acknowledges his debt to many thinkers before him, among them Socrates, St. Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, Thomas Jefferson, T.S. Eliot, Martin Buber, and Paul Tillich. A particular influence here and throughout the entire civil rights movement is Henry David Thoreau. When he addresses unjust laws and the responsibility of people of good conscience to protest such laws, Dr. King echoes Thoreau’s essay “Resistance to Civil Government.” This essay, also known as “Civil Disobedience,” was composed after Thoreau spent one night in the Concord, Massachusetts, jail for failure to pay a poll tax. The tax would have gone, in part, to support the Mexican-American War, which Thoreau and other abolitionists believed was being waged to expand the practice of slavery in the United States. Thoreau was an ardent supporter of the abolitionist cause. In fact, his cabin at Walden Pond was sometimes used as a stop on the Underground Railroad. Thoreau welcomed runaway slaves at his cabin during the day and took them to safe houses in Concord at night.
Dr. King looked to Thoreau, among others, for inspiration for his theory of nonviolent direct action, a practice he outlines and defends in “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” So closely linked are Thoreau’s essay and Dr. King’s letter that they have even been published together. Dr. King wrote in his autobiography:
During my student days I read Henry David Thoreau’s essay “On Civil Disobedience” for the first time. Here, in this courageous New Englander’s refusal to pay his taxes and his choice of jail rather than support a war that would spread slavery’s territory into Mexico, I made my first contact with the theory of nonviolent resistance. Fascinated by the idea of refusing to cooperate with an evil system, I was so deeply moved that I reread the work several times. I became convinced that noncooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good. No other person has been more eloquent and passionate in getting this idea across than Henry David Thoreau. As a result of his writings and personal witness, we are the heirs of a legacy of creative protest. The teachings of Thoreau came alive in our civil rights movement. . . . Whether expressed in a sit-in at lunch counters, a freedom ride into Mississippi, a peaceful protest in Albany, Georgia, a bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, these are outgrowt
169: Susan Glaspell: "Trifles"
This week on StoryWeb, Susan Glaspell’s play Trifles.
Born in 1876, Susan Glaspell was a prominent novelist, short story writer, journalist, biographer, actress, and, most notably, playwright, winning the 1931 Pulitzer Prize for Drama for her play Alison’s House. She and her husband, George Cram Cook, founded the ground-breaking Provincetown Players, widely known as the first modern American theater company. In fact, it was Glaspell who discovered dramatist Eugene O’Neill as she was searching for a new playwright to feature at the theater.
Though she was a widely acclaimed author during her lifetime, with pieces in Harper’s and Ladies’ Home Journal and with books on the New York Times bestsellers list, Glaspell is little known today. She comes down to us for two related works: her one-act play Trifles, written in 1916, and a short story based on the play, “A Jury of Her Peers,” written in 1917. The play and the story were based on Margaret Hossack’s murder trial, which Glaspell covered as a young reporter for the Des Moines Daily News in her home state of Iowa.
Trifles – which she wrote in just ten days – is a masterful account of the way two housewives successfully unravel the mystery of another housewife’s murder of her husband. Mr. Wright has been found dead in his bedroom, strangled with a rope. His wife, Mrs. Wright, is in the kitchen, acting “queer,” according to Mr. Hale, the neighbor who initially discovers the murder.
The play takes place the day after the murdered man is discovered and after his wife has been taken to jail. Three prominent men of the community – Sheriff Peters, County Attorney Henderson, and Mr. Hale – go to investigate the murder scene. Sheriff Peters and Mr. Hale bring their wives along with them, just in case they can discover any clues to the murder.
It is widely assumed that Mrs. Wright killed her husband, but what is her motive? The three men are truly stumped. What would cause an ordinary housewife in a seemingly calm and tidy home to kill her husband?
As the detectives are investigating the murder scene in the bedroom upstairs, Mrs. Peters and Mrs. Hale look around the kitchen and the parlor. Little by little, they begin to spy clues to Mrs. Wright’s emotional state. Erratic stitches in a piece of quilting when all the other needlework was straight, beautiful, unblemished. An empty birdcage with a broken door. A dead canary – its neck twisted – hidden in Mrs. Wright’s sewing basket in a piece of silk. The women realize without even speaking to each other that Mr. Wright had killed the bird and driven his wife to murder. And with silent, knowing looks at each other, they decide not to tell the men what they’ve discovered.
For an outstanding reworking of Glaspell’s play, see Kaye Gibbons’s 1991 novel, A Cure for Dreams. Gibbons, a North Carolina writer, obviously had Trifles in mind as she depicts ##, a character who “hides” her crime in her quilting. You can learn more about the connections between Trifles and A Cure for Dreams in my first book, A Southern Weave of Women: Fiction of the Contemporary South. (Check out Chapter 6, “The Southern Wild Zone: Voices on the Margins.” My discussion of A Cure for Dreams begins on page 194, and I explore the links between Glaspell and Gibbons on pages 201-202.)
Trifles also make me think of Adrienne Rich’s early poem “Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers.” The elderly Aunt Jennifer has spent her adult life being “mastered” by her husband. His ring – that is, her wedding band – weighs heavy on her hand. But that weight doesn’t stop her from creating scenes of liberation, power, and strength in her needlepoint. In her tapestry, Aunt Jennifer depicts tigers – “prancing, proud and unafraid.” There’s a story there, Rich seems to say, a sign for those who are adept enough to read it.
Finally, Trifles reminds me of African American women quilters who sewed into their quilts messages