i.m. Stephen B. Oates (1936 – 2021)

Among the lessons I learned from Stephen B. Oates: avoid the curséd passive voice (pronounced with a Texas Panhandle twang and an accented “ed”); always put arms and legs on your minor characters; biography is a spring art of bringing the dead back to life; you too can write, you too can publish.

And so we did, his students. Because he showed us how. First day of his biography seminar, Amherst, Massachusetts, winter 1983: box of notes on the seminar table. “Here’s how I do it,” he began. He was a little man, wiry and gray as the miniature schnauzer I later learned he owned.

He talked us through the process (all of it pre-computer of course). Boxes with hundreds of notes, categorized in sections, all of it cross-referenced. A separate box for bibliography. A typed outline. “I print out the day’s outline and turn on music”—spirituals for his biography of Martin Luther King—”and read through the day’s material. I memorize it, then set it down and go upstairs and write. Closest I can get to writing from the imagination.”

He communed with his subjects—channeled Martin Luther King Jr., lived with Lincoln, died with Nat Turner. Little wonder his marriages suffered, or that, for years, he drank (I remember sharing the dregs of a bottle of Gallo with him in my grad-school kitchen at 2 a.m. one morning while we talked biography). He inhabited spook worlds, lived and breathed the lives of others.

He taught us that we could do the same. From him I learned the techniques of creative nonfiction, found a métier, summoned a courage, in my twenties, I can’t easily conjure now. When I eventually went into the classroom myself to teach, Stephen was my model.

Find what drives your students and push them, he’d shown me. Teach them they’ve got something to say, and a way of saying it. Show them how to do it—literally, talk them through the process of research, queries, publication, revision. This stuff’s not precious. A kid from Pampa, Texas—father a mechanic, mother a secretary—can sit at the table with the grown-ups.

After I finished that seminar in 1983, Stephen invited me to join a group he’d formed in Amherst, a small assemblage of former students committed to biography. We met monthly for dinner, read each other’s work, talked shop. We published lives of Elinor Frost, Eva LeGallienne, Mary Emma Woolley, Eleanora Duse, Federico García Lorca). We stayed in touch for the next 40 years. Even when he was battling debilitating back pain, Stephen was the soul behind it all: the quintessential teacher who never really retired from teaching.

He never grew cynical (not even—not especially—when charges of plagiarism splashed him into the deep end of the news stream). He held onto his reverence for the craft even after illness kept him from writing. He believed there was nothing more important, more glorious, than the moment you set the outline aside and go upstairs to your desk and start to write.

i.m. Brian Doyle

I’m teaching a Brian Doyle essay this week, “The Anchoviad.” The second of two Doyle essays this term. Two weeks ago it was “Joyas Volardores,” Brian’s majestic exploration of the human heart by way of hummingbirds, whales, worms and bacteria. My students were rightly captivated—struck—by the abrupt swerve at the end of the essay, from insects and mollusks to startling considerations of human attachment. One student, a quiet Vietnamese-American from western Michigan, where she works in her mom’s nail salon, said she’d made herself read the last paragraph again, out loud, it was so breath-catching.

I told them a little about Brian—how he’d edited a university rag (Portland Magazine), as I too once had, and how welcome his comments had always been on the various listservs to which we editors subscribed. Always quirky, a fountain of sentences just this side of nonsense, yet always with some jagged truth to jolt you out of the office humdrum. Quips on editing, on faculty egos (“the only time we type Doctor is if you can remove kidneys, teeth, or neuroses professionally”), on the miracle of being able to make a living by making magazines. He was right.

For years I’d wanted to hire him to write for the public health magazine I edited, and in 2016 I nearly did. We crossed paths at a writers conference in Wyoming and talked about his writing a piece on water—Flint’s had just been poisoned, and I wanted to devote a whole issue to the topic. “Personally I think water is (a) the holiest of substances and (b) the great story of the 21st century,” he said in a follow-up email.

I told him I could pay a dollar a word, “if you’re a $1 a word kind of guy.” To which he responded:

i am not a buck a word guy – i am a story guy, and whatever you have to pay is plenty. I was thinking recently that I have been paid in wood, feathers, wine, beer, berries, a deer antler, jam, fish, and, for a while with a bird magazine, a dollar per essay. I once was paid in wine by the number of words by an Australian newspaper, but that was a mistake, and i found myself throwing in adjectives willy nilly hahahaha

I told him I was bracing for adjectives.

Sinuous serpentine riverine supple pliable rippled rippling burbling, he wrote back.

Not long after that exchange, Brian was diagnosed with a brain tumor and had surgery. He died on Memorial Day 2017, not yet 60.

I shared our email exchange with my students after we read “Joyas Volardores.” Be that generous yourselves, I told them. What I meant was, if, in something as ephemeral as an email exchange, you have the option of being a mensch or being a schmuck, be a mensch.

In “The Anchoviad,” Doyle says of his then–three-year-old son Liam, whose habit it was to fall asleep every night with a can of anchovies in his hand: “He is a startling, one-time-only, boneheaded miracle with a sensory complex in his head and heart that I can only guess at and dimly try to savor in the few brilliant moments I have been given to swim with him.” Another frank reminder to cherish those we’ve been given to swim with.

Recognize the holy. Don’t take water for granted. Be generous. Be more generous.

The View from My Window

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Last Wednesday afternoon, I was teaching, as I have off and on for some 20 years, James Agee’s hypnotic essay “Knoxville: Summer of 1915.” It’s the last time I’m likely to teach it, so it was especially moving to me this time. I’ve got a terrific class of eight smart, quirky, avid first-year students. We got to talking about that haunting opening phrase—so successfully disguised to myself as a child—and what it meant, and I sent the students into breakout rooms to continue the discussion privately among themselves. This left me alone in my office for a few minutes, at my standing desk, looking out the window. Where I saw, unusually for a cold February afternoon, snow on the ground, twilight settling in, a child—a girl, I think—in pink leggings and a helmet and maybe a facemask (I couldn’t quite tell) balancing on a Segway. Spinning, actually, around the little circle of snow-shoveled macadam at the end of the neighboring street.

Successfully disguised to herself as a child, I thought.

And then another child: a boy this time, I think, on roller skates. Also helmeted and, possibly, masked. I couldn’t make out faces, could only guess at their ages and genders. But there they were, spinning in spheres wide and narrow as my students talked invisibly to one another about what Agee’s phrase meant to them in their lives.

Two adults, I thought, disguised as children, tracing circles on a patch of pavement. Not unlike Agee’s fathers with their hoses, and his mothers with their damp hands, and his kids running hell-bent through the neighborhood in 1915 calling out “those names by which they were known.” Spinning or circling in much the same way the adults in Agee’s essay talk as they lie on quilts in the fading light: “of nothing in particular, of nothing at all in particular, of nothing at all.”

My students are for the most part 18, and experiencing a first year of college such as few, if any, have ever experienced. Most are living at home; a handful have ventured on campus, where they’re under strict rules. Still, they’re game. They turn up at 4 pm on Zoom with smiles and water bottles and, last week, ice cream. They’re marvelously not children—well into the period when they’re shaping their adult lives. One wants to be a doctor, one wants to be a medical examiner, one wants to be president of the United States. As my students talked in their breakout rooms, I watched those two children on the street outside my window and remembered the strange maturity one feels a child, possessed of an uncanny wisdom about the world—a wisdom mostly disguised to outsiders. I feel something of that disconnect today—a child on the verge of retirement, still trying to make sense of my surroundings and my future. I’ve never quite understood Agee’s essay as clearly as I did last week, watching those two child-adults etching circles on a snowy street. Soon my students came back from their breakouts, and we resumed our conversation. When I looked out the window again the children had vanished.

June 5, 1985

Two weeks ago, on a weekend trip to Chicago, I read Natasha Tretheway’s Memorial Drive. Couldn’t put it down. I hadn’t been that keen to read it—the story of her mother’s murder in Atlanta when Tretheway was 19. I’ve been interested in Tretheway’s poetry—in her use of form, particularly, and of course in her subject matter. But this book seemed too … topical? Is that the word? I wanted something more nebulous, ruminative, poetic. Not a murder mystery (I don’t read true crime or thrillers.) And then I began reading and was hooked, drawn in by imagery and voice, by the hollow at the heart of this awful story that Tretheway tries to fill but can’t.

Her mother was killed on June 5, 1985. Midway through the book I wondered what I’d been doing that same day, and I realized I was probably in Granada marking Lorca’s birthday at the end of my first year on the Fulbright. Stupefied by the beauty of the poppy fields on the train route south from Madrid, by the blaring symbolism of nearly everything I beheld (those blood red fields seeming to hold Lorca’s death in their folds). In sensory overload after seeing my first (and to date only) Corpus Cristi procession, the ethereal march of the sacrament through Granada’s canopied streets, attended by priests in frilly little-girl gowns. I remember a long, air-conditioned lunch afterward with newly met strangers, Americans, that afternoon.

Tretheway writes a lot about Lorca at the end of her book, leaning on him to examine the idea of duende, which she describes as “a demon that drives an artist, causing trouble or pain and an acute awareness of death.” She doesn’t mention the coincidence that her mother was murdered on what would have been the 87th birthday of the murdered poet. Twinned beings, both intimately in touch with the cruelty of our kind (racism, Fascism, machismo, domestic assault, guns). I’m not sure what to make of this chronological link. There’s something haunting, maybe even beautiful, in the fact that Tretheway herself doesn’t make the link—as if it would be too much, too neat. As if the hole left by her mother’s death—by Lorca’s death—is too big for coincidence. What if, instead, there’s a vast, collective cloud of grief and sacrifice and love hovering in our atmosphere, one big enough for each of us to dip into when we need it? Wafer into intinction cup; a moment’s communion.

Family Graphics

Last year while writing about my slaveholding Scarlett ancestors, I tried my hand at rendering three of them visually. The process surprised me—not because I saw that I had mixed feelings about these people (duh)—but because, as I hacked and slashed with my paintbrush, I saw that I wanted to eradicate them.

I later shared the images during a session of Coming to the Table’s Linked Descendants group, where we were asked to make collages addressing our ancestral pasts vis a vis American slavery (you can read more about that session here.)

            I continue to wrestle with this stuff. To cast blame on my enslaving ancestors is to suggest I would have been any different. But that’s a lie. I’m pretty sure I’d have done exactly what they did—especially as a woman, dependent on fathers and husbands and brothers for financial security, raised to defer to power. I’d have been as complicit as Fanny McDonald Scarlett (pictured here), who raged when one of her most trusted “servants,” an enslaved woman named Matilda, seized trunkloads of Scarlett belongings and fled for freedom in 1862. (“I wonder if it is possible that she can be so depraved as to be happy,” Fanny said.) Little wonder I’m eager to silence her.

Robert Leslie Pettigrew (December 9, 1923 – March 25, 2021)

He was invariably there, my Uncle Bob, as I worked to unpeel the family history we both knew lay stuck inside those boxes of my grandmother’s—the ones she’d collected for half a century, then surrendered to him, who held onto them for another decade or so before he packed them up and shipped them to me. “Perishable Fresh Fruit,” read the lid of one box. I put it in my closet and left it there, unopened, for another half-dozen years.

My beloved Uncle Bob: inheritor of his mother’s (my grandmother’s) overflowing archive and her strict devotion to family, the only religion I ever knew her to preach.

Early on, she picked Bob, her only son, as the one to take over the family history business when she got too old and addled to handle it herself. Loyal to the core (or possibly lacking the will it would have taken to stand up to her withering frown) he dutifully took on the task.

One of the things she gave him was a key: an old, bent, quasi-rusted tool of the sort a child might draw to illustrate the concept of “key.” I’ve got it now on my desk. Uncle Bob sent it to me years ago, in a cardboard container he’d carefully carved out to hold the treasure. He attached a note, in which he sketched the outline of the key and speculated about its origins—“something to do with the family, I never knew exactly what”—and then went on, in his engineer’s way, to ruminate on the “shape of the matching combination part inside the lock.”

In much the same way, he handed me the key to the book I’ve just finished writing about our slaveholding Scarlett ancestors. He did it five summers ago, when I was visiting him in Wyoming. He happened to mention a memory my grandmother had harbored lifelong. I’d never heard the story before—not from my mother, and certainly not from my grandmother—and it quickly became the driving engine for my book.

Specifically, my uncle told me that his mother had told him, when he was just a kid—this would have been in the early 1930s—that she was haunted by memories of the men in her family going out into the night in Brunswick, Georgia, in the first years of the 20th century, and doing something wrong.

When I asked my uncle to write down the details of the story, he did. “Your Grandmother did tell me of ‘men riding off in the night, mysteriously, and returning without explanation,’ of that I’m quite sure. She didn’t mention any names nor did she directly suggest any reasons. … It was I who mentally related her comments to night raids on Negroes, not your Grandmother (at least not vocally), but I still believe that relationship was true.”

A chance conversation in 2016—one of those spider threads that have the power to utterly change what we know about the past. My uncle’s passing revelation pushed me to places I would never have gone on my own and led me to uncover a plausible source for my grandmother’s nightmare—a killing of a young Black man in Brunswick in 1901 that involved one of her uncles.

That my own Uncle Bob—prudent engineer, cautious family historian, a man whose political instincts erred toward the conservative—was willing to break my grandmother’s code of silence says worlds about the man. He knew the information he gave me was likely to expose uncomfortable truths about our family, and he did it anyway. I wish more people would heed his example.

Lee’s Traveller (after Charlottesville)

They bred such horses in Virginia then, horses that were remembered after death.

Head lowered, flanks stilled, the animal fixes his eyes on the red brick city where the boys are massing. The invincible boys, the gallant men behind their shades and shields. The ones who at long last, after all these years, have been fed and fueled.

No more waiting for rations or trains. No more shoeless troops, spent cartridges, empty trough. No gaunt faces and skeletal limbs. No retreat. (Remember how they peered up at you as you cantered past on the way to Appomattox. Remember how he paused in the midst of the dreadful ride to let you sip from a cool stream.)

All these years after the ivory flag, the inglorious exchange of letters and conditions, he sits astride you still, as if still posing for Brady, stalwart in his colonel’s stars and gold buttons not two days after surrender, unable to resist celebrity’s consolation prize. Never utter the word defeat. Speak instead of God’s hands, as he does. As they do. Mom, dad, the lanky brood with their buckteeth grins. All those schoolkids arranged in happy groups at your feet, gazing up in awe (or was it boredom) at the Roman face and gloved hands: the image inscribed in a thousand holy books.

All those quiet decades when the sword hung idle by his side. And now they’re back, flames in their eyes.

Feel the shift of his weight in the saddle, the familiar tug of the reins. You’d forgotten the fear, the urge to bolt. How he used to soothe you. How he ran his strong fingers along your hide, sponged the sweat, fastened the dove-gray coat and whispered sweet encouragements. Tightened the blinders and turned you toward the guns.

What is peace, after all, but a lost cause. Yoked to him like this, you know only fieldworks, picket lines, the swift and sudden flank attack, the fury of the uniformed brigades. The ones marching this way, tikis aloft.

Across the valley the enemy campfires flicker. Now they’re chanting the soft songs of brotherhood, the tender ballads. A child, weeping, begs to hear more. Her strange grace, floating skyward, reminds you of home, whatever that is. Reminds you of clover and bluegrass, the bobwhite’s call. Pillared house. Stabled lawn. The daughters with their fragrant skirts. The sons he sends, like you, into battle. Can’t we simply be, they cry. But he’s got fresh recruits.

All those years when you trusted. Raised your head and carried him forward. Watched him muster the infantry, mourn the dead, discipline the shirkers and stragglers. Watched him strip the ones who ran to their waists and order the whip. All those times you closed your ears, prayed for an end. But God, for whom two-thousand years (as you well know) are but as a single day, works slowly, and the master is nothing if not patient.

Once they loved you so much they built you a grave. Chiselled it with your name. Planted hyacinths and moss, as he did for his beloved. Who would believe you once threw him to the ground? Yanked the reins and leapt backward and flung him from the saddle, both wrists sprained. For weeks he rode in an ambulance while you followed behind. Remember how it felt to walk free. Remember how the wind grazed your back, the sun warmed your cold heart. Brave colt, noble steed, do it again.

Yes, in My Backyard

Although I grew up in Lancaster County and wrote a book about its storied Fulton Theatre, I’d been largely ignorant of its African-American past (and present) until this past weekend, when I joined Joe McGill and members of the Slave Dwelling Project for an overnight stay and series of public events in the county.

In the town of Columbia, where we spent the night, I learned about the surprisingly large enclave of free blacks who settled there before the Civil War—a bold “in-your-face” to whites living south of the Mason-Dixon line (some 15 miles from Columbia) and to the dozens of slave catchers who set up shop in Lancaster County during the first half of the 19th century. Columbia’s blacks seem to have been alternately sheltered and attacked by their white neighbors. (In a troubling prelude to our own times, Columbia’s white working class rioted against the town’s African Americans in 1834—upset that brown people were “taking” their jobs.)

In downtown Lancaster, I learned about 20th-century discrimination against black workers in Hager’s Department Store (“I was just light enough to get a job as an elevator attendant,” remembered Leroy Hopkins, emeritus professor of German at Millersville University). I heard a poignant rendition from performer Amanda Kemp about what it’s like to “walk while black”—protected, to a slight degree, from white fear and aggression by her reassuringly female pink and green ensemble. (Black boys like her son, Kemp said, have no such protection.) On a walking tour of African-American heritage sites in Lancaster, I saw the city through a new and welcome lens.

Missing from most of this, though, was a clear picture of the history of slavery in my home county. Lancastrians are eager to celebrate the county’s decisive role in the Underground Railroad—a result in part of its strategic geography. But what of its less celebratory past? Slavery came to Pennsylvania in 1636, according to Randy Harris (who led the downtown African-American heritage tour), and enslaved people inhabited the city until at least 1840. To the question of whether (and where) enslaved people were auctioned in downtown Lancaster, Randy had no answer. Ditto the matter of where enslaved people lived. Aside from a few documented sites and records—the plantation of the 18th-century slaveholder and Revolutionary War General Edward Hand; letters in which the 18th-century slaveholder (and town magistrate) Edward Shippen described the purchase of an enslaved woman—there’s little physical evidence of Lancaster County’s century-long involvement in slavery.

Randy’s tour included a stop at a pair of underground cisterns where abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens and his mixed-race companion, Lydia Smith, are believed to have housed African Americans fleeing slavery. But the city’s more difficult history—its deep complicity in the slave system, even after Pennsylvania abolished slavery in 1780—remains largely buried. When I was researching my book on the Fulton Theatre, I discovered lists of enslaved African Americans who were incarcerated in the town jail after running away from their “owners” in the early decades of the 19th century. Many were sent back into slavery. I also found newspaper accounts of the thriving cotton mills Lancaster opened in the 1840s—mills that helped perpetuate Southern slavery while boosting the Lancaster economy. Thaddeus Stevens himself praised their role in the city’s fortunes.

The weekend visit by the Slave Dwelling Project was a welcome reminder that, like the slave dwellings Joe McGill is working to preserve, this part of Lancaster’s story demands attention.


This week in Chicago, I went to the Museum of Contemporary Art for the first time in several years. It’s not generally my thing, contemporary art, but I’ve always found the place deeply thought-provoking. This time was no different. Howardena Pindell—an artist whose work I didn’t know. But trusting the MCA (and the nice guy at the front desk who recommended her show as he sold me my ticket), I went. I was drawn in at once by her exuberant color, and the strange, nit-picky way she numbered grid paper in her early work—an homage to her mathematician father, the labels claimed—and the intricate transition from those fetished numbers into hole punches inscribed with numbers, into hole-punched canvases, into beautiful, hand-stitched paper assemblages scattered with punched holes, bits of glitter, talcum powder, thread.

I was merrily absorbed in all of this when I was taken up short by an abrupt transition—Pindell’s car accident in 1979, from which she emerged semi-amnesiac. Now the hole-punched abstract canvases took on more urgency. She began affixing scraps of paper—images, slivers of postcards from friends, fragments relevant to her lost memories. Titles repeat the word “memory,” as if by insisting on memory she might recover it. The work is recognizably hers—the vibrant colors, the obsession with punched holes, stitched paper.

And then the show’s great revelation: a vast and brilliant blue oval of sea (or sky or both) reckoning with the Middle Passage and Pindell’s African ancestry, titled Autobiography: Water/Ancestors Middle Passage/Family Ghosts (it belongs to the Wadsworth Atheneum). Here, in this impossibly beautiful blue piece, she conjures the stitched-together nature of memory, collective and personal. We see a female body, capped with a self-portrait of Pindell herself, cut from and stitched back into the broader canvas, which is scattered with images conjuring the slave trade, including the notorious diagram of a slave ship with its packed human cargo. And in its midst is this body—alive, fragrant, contemporary. The arms and legs are patched with small images of eyes. She is both an eye and an I. A witness—in a place where she was meant to be only cargo, eyeless. I-less. But here instead, like an Egyptian goddess, she sees all.

The piece feels one with Saidiya Hartman’s Lose Your Mother: A Journey along the Atlantic Slave Route, in which Hartman, a descendant of enslaved African Americans, attempts to stitch together the “gaps and silences and empty rooms” of her history. “Alongside the terrible things one had survived,” Hartman writes of those who endured the Middle Passage, “was also the shame of having survived it. Remembering warred with the will to forget.”

I’ve got evidence that my own great-great-great-grandfather purchased an imprisoned African from the illicit slave ship Wanderer in 1858. I too am working with scissored truths to reconstruct a history from this destruction. So blue and beautiful from a distance, the sea: so cruel in the details.


It’s the first of the year, the temps are dropping and evenings lengthening by the minute. On January 4, the mornings start growing longer, too—or so my Swiss brother-in-law, born on the 4th, tells me. We move toward light.

Two weeks ago, I went out at daybreak to get the paper and heard a rush of bird song. Or rather, a triple-word, triple-syllable trill by a bird I eventually spotted in the top branches of the mock orange beside our garage. Small, brown, wrenlike, with a brilliant song. What gives, I thought, when even birds are making merry in this shortest, darkest month of the year?

In another 30 days, bird song will be rampant and we’ll have gained an hour of daylight. We move toward grace.

Last week in Switzerland, I discovered the Protestant church in the town of Martigny in the heart of Catholic Valais, with its 17 stained-glass windows designed between 2011 and 2013 by the Swiss artist Hans Erni. Erni was 102 when he began the project and 104 when he completed it. A non-believer, he turned Biblical stories into charged, nearly secular images whose searing colors and often whimsical imagery struck me as profoundly sacred, inasmuch as they sanctify the everyday. Consider Eve as a farmer’s wife harvesting apples by the basketful, Jonah as a diver plunging head-first into the sea as he reaches out with one hand to play with a fish, Isaiah as a young boy charmed by the guileless snake at his knees.

Consider, above all, the faith of a painter who in his second century of life took on this massive commission. The Protestant church at Martigny is lit from the inside at night, so that residents of the town, believers and non-believers both, cannot avoid the bright vision of this spirited centenarian.

Erni died in 2015, at 106. May his optimism inspire ours.