books, history, james agee, literature, the south

Cotton Tenants

An unexpected side effect of growing up–and a happy accident of collegiate coincidence–is that, over the past few years, I’ve become good friends with my sister. Reared in the same intellectual soil and having inherited the same idiosyncratic neural wiring, we talk fluidly, range widely. Our overlapping areas of interest (Southern culture, North Carolina history and politics, town & university history, gardens) are especially well-trodden because she’s just graduated with a degree in American Studies, her concentration in Southern Studies. I rely on her to Dante me through the black-and-white world of the past, picking out, say, the saintly congressman from the sleazy one, both of them sweating through their seersucker.

Over the past few weeks, all of these beautiful, reverent reviews (here are five of them, you ought to take a look) of James Agee’s long-thought-lost Cotton Tenants have been coming out online, and I’ve been reading and re-reading them, scanning the library catalog for a copy, pressure building, until, last Thursday, I launched a no-holds-barred pester campaign (ie, sent an email) to convince Charlotte to buy it. Of course I cracked before she did, and am holding it in trust for myself until Monday, until after my Organic Chemistry exam. At which point, I’ll spend the next few days on an Ageean Spree (third-hand pun, lowest of the low!), and start Orgo II on Thursday. I haven’t read any of his work, although I am guilty of having let people think I’ve read Famous Men (“lapidary,” “lyrical,” “baroque”).

The only thing I do know about cotton comes from The Quest of the Silver Fleece, the Alabama Stitch Book, and this one time my grandmother, before she died, pulled over on the side of the road to pick me a dried-up stalk of it; we kept that stalk in a green vase by the TV, before it was stolen. Different vantages. I’m looking forward to reading it, Monday, to talking about it with someone better-equipped to cut through to the heart of it.


A Birthday

I got a notification from WordPress the other day, reminding me that this blog’s registration would be auto-renewing soon, so, heads up, Caroline, that’s where that $20-odd charge is going to come from (this assuming that I hadn’t yet heard the bad news). And so, having paid the rent on this old one-horse rag-and-bone shop for another year, I feel impelled to do something to make the enterprise feel a little more worthwhile. To start, check out what I found on the ground! robins egg

It is the birthday of a bird: an auspicious thing. You can also check out my fine cinderblock bookshelves: if it’s good enough for Gezi, it’s good enough for me.

clothes, friends, knitting, pullover

Regular Programming

Well, God, glad that’s over.

In the interest of talking about the most normal, friendly, innocuous things, here’s a picture of my friend Maggie wearing the sweater I knit her for Christmas to work:


It’s a Kristen Johnstone pattern; I knit it in the mountains this past fall.

More of the wonderfully banal:

  • guy’s coming to fix the sink tomorrow
  • meatballs for dinner
  • 1 week left of classes



Hello, this is Keith Chesterton–you’ve got the right person at the wrong time, but if you leave your name, number, and a brief message, I will impress upon my heart to call you back immediately.

You have a blessed day, now.

And, by the way: I’m praying for you.



I keep thinking about Plato’s description of man–a featherless biped–and here comes Diogenes, you know, with this plucked chicken, and he throws it on the ground and says, Here, here’s what man is to you?

The definition was amended.

Skinny little chicken legs, though. How they snap so easily. So many weird, indigestible bits to the biped: tendons and cartilage, fasciae and bursae.

And so I have begun to wonder when (not if) my legs will snap, to look down feel a dread compulsion to get a move on before it happens.

classics, Greek, houseplants, literature, music, plants, poetry, russians

Pale Green Things

It’s the second day of spring and forty degrees. Buds belonged to last week, we’re on to crimped wet leaves and forsythia.

I have been thinking about plants (vines, trees, houseplants, leaves) nonstop. What I did for my Spring Break: dreamed about plants. I don’t know how I should classify this agglomeration of ideas–it’s loose.

1) This verse from towards the end of Pindar’s 8th Nemean Ode. It’s used as an epigraph to Martha Nussbaum’s The Fragility of Goodness, and that’s how I first read it, but I turn to it over and over for the freshness of its imagery:

χρυσὸν εὔχονται, πεδίον δ᾽ ἕτεροι
ἀπέραντον: ἐγὼ δ᾽ ἀστοῖς ἁδὼν
καὶ χθονὶ γυῖα καλύψαιμ᾽,
αἰνέων αἰνητά, μομφὰν δ᾽ ἐπισπείρων ἀλιτροῖς.

αὔξεται δ᾽ ἀρετά, χλωραῖς ἐέρσαις ὡς ὅτε δένδρεον ᾁσσει,
ἐν σοφοῖς ἀνδρῶν ἀερθεῖσ᾽ ἐν δικαίοις τε πρὸς ὑγρὸν
αἰθέρα. χρεῖαι δὲ παντοῖαι φίλων ἀνδρῶν: τὰ μὲν ἀμφὶ πόνοις
ὑπερώτατα: μαστεύει δὲ καὶ τέρψις ἐν ὄμμασι θέσθαι

Some pray for gold, others for boundless land:
But I pray to delight the people in my town
until I cover my limbs with earth,
praising praiseworthy things, but sowing the seeds of reproach against the wicked.

For virtue grows, like how a tree darts up to fresh dews,
uplifted among wise men
and just ones, towards the liquid sky.
But there are all sorts of needs for dear friends:
and in the midst of struggles most of all.
But joy also seeks to place trust
before its eyes.

2) I decided back in January that, if I shouldn’t have pets, I’d have houseplants, and that has been a great decision. I bought Tovah Martin’s The Unexpected Houseplant one week ago, and have read it cover to cover three times. I was afraid it might be dumb, fluffy, and skew photo-heavy/info-lite, but it’s great. My plant scheming is constant (my pinterest boards would be overflowing, but it creeps me out to see public caches of folks’ deepest desires. That’s personal.), and I can’t wait to see how they all look in 5 years. The goal is, of course, an indoor forest.

3) So, the word tender is both an adjective (soft, delicate, young), a verb (offer formally), and a noun (person-who-watches). Comes from the Latin verb tendere, to stretch or reach out, like young vine tendrils (the first two are pretty clear, but the last one: the person who tends reaches out with her mind to encompass the thing-tended).

That is so poignant. Also it is my favorite vegetable cookbook?

4) The sticky little leaves in Dostoevsky by way of Puskin
The baffling tenderness in Tsvetaeva
Hildegard von Bingen’s use of viriditas and femininity.

5) So, naturally, reading Life of a Leaf and Plant-Thinking, visiting the Arboretum in the weekdays and the Botanical Gardens on the weekend, contemplating an inane DTH op-ed, Oda a los jardineros (“Gosh, guys, Grounds does such a good job!”).

Greek, greek mythology, illustration, literature, politics, struggle, the bible, virginia woolf, women

Wrestling With the Angel in the House

Yesterday, I wrote about women and working, but, really, social and economic debates aren’t what I came for. I’m here, today at least, for the literary criticism.

Virginia’s Woolf’s 1931 lecture Professions for Women, which would later become the book Three Guineas, contains very many savory parts (“What could be easier than to write articles and to buy Persian cats with the profits?”) but is most considerably spiced by a life-and-death battle between Virginia and The Angel in the House (I guess we have also called it The Feminine Mystique, and today have our endless rounds of Why Women Still Can’t Have it All, and, Is [x] A Feminist?).

But, fighting the angel, killing the angel!

The inclusion of that image is insane, because the only other place in literature I can think of where a human fights an angel is in Genesis–the ur-text of patriarchy–when Jacob Wrestles with the Angel.


Jacob is on his way back home, now a rich man. He is coming to meet his brother Esau, the hirsute twin he’s swindled out of his birthright, and understandably anxious about it.

And Jacob was left alone; and there wrestled a man with him until the breaking of the day. And when he saw that he prevailed not against him, he touched the hollow of his thigh; and the hollow of Jacob’s thigh was out of joint, as he wrestled with him. And he said, Let me go, for the day breaketh. And he said, I will not let thee go, except thou bless me. And he said unto him, What is thy name? And he said, Jacob. And he said, Thy name shall be called no more Jacob, but Israel: for as a prince thou hast striven with God and with men, and hast prevailed.

Genesis 32:24-28

Jacob walked out of that fight with 1) a limp & a new Jewish dietary restriction, 2) a new name and identity, and 3) a blessing from God, which, pretty good. Virginia’s fight with the angel looks different:

The shadow of her wings fell on my page; I heard the rustling of her skirts in the room. Directly, that is to say, I took my pen in my hand to review that novel by a famous man, she slipped behind me and whispered: “My dear, you are a young woman…” And she made as if to guide my pen.

I turned upon her and caught her by the throat. I did my best to kill her.

…whenever I felt the shadow of her wing or the radiance of her halo upon my page, I took up the inkpot and flung it at her. She died hard. Her fictitious nature was of great assistance to her. It is far harder to kill a phantom than a reality. She was always creeping back when I thought I had despatched her. Though I flatter myself that I killed her in the end, the struggle was severe; it took much time that had better have been spent upon learning Greek grammar; or in roaming the world in search of adventures. But it was a real experience; it was an experience that was bound to befall all women writers at that time. Killing the Angel in the House was part of the occupation of a woman writer.

Actually, if I had to pick an analogous fight from the list of famous-wrasslin’-matches-of-classical-literature, I’d say it looks like Hercules’ fight against Antaeus, the giant who is unkillable so long as he remains in contact with the earth, his mother. He was also always creeping back when thought dispatched.

We, some of us (white, straight, cisgendered, able-bodied and -minded), are lucky enough to only have to kill off the Angel in the House, and not have to also contend with the host of distorted, demonized caricatures that illustrate any and every deviance from that ideal. This Virginia v. Angel battle is really just the expo round of a struggle in which each of us will have to personally engage:

If I have laid stress upon these professional experiences of mine, it is because I believe that they are, though in different forms, yours also. Even when the path is nominally open–when there is nothing to prevent a woman from being a doctor, a lawyer, a civil servant–there are many phantoms and obstacles, as I believe, looming in her way.

What does it mean to wrestle against an Angel of the Lord, versus the Angel in the House (…versus a pre-human chthonic giant who makes skull-temples)? To win through tenacity, or by liberal use of the inkpot, or by getting an understanding of how the thing works? To hang on, despite the breaking of the day and hip-dislocation, despite it being a waste of time (better spent learning Greek grammar, agreed), despite its eternal recurrence (until, that is, you figure out the trick)?

To say, I will not let thee go, except thou bless me? and to walk out of the fight, fundamentally altered?