by Kaulie Lewis
Summer’s coming to an end, and after months of stifling heat, lazy afternoons, and beach reads, it’s finally time for cool autumn nights and back-to-school shopping. It’s also time for another Bloomers at Large, and this month’s news has largely centered on under-recognized and misunderstood works published in the mid-20th century by Bloomers ranging from Robert Frost to Iceberg Slim.
Robert Frost falls into the second category, of course—writers whose work has been misunderstood. After all, his poem “The Road Not Taken,” published 100 years ago when Frost was 42, is the most popular poetic work in the American canon. But as critic David Orr explains in his new book, also titled The Road Not Taken, the poem has been accidentally and deliberately misinterpreted ever since it first appeared, first praised as an ode to American individuality and then read as a dark joke at individuality’s expense. So which is the right approach? Orr argues that the poem supports both readings, with the rival interpretations layered “like overlapping ghosts.” As Adam Plunkett writes for The New York Times, “In Orr’s lucid reading, the poem brings to life and dances on the grave of the plucky, nonconformist, self-determined and self-realized person at the heart of the American myth of individualism.”
The “plucky, nonconformist, self-determined and self-realized person” who embodies a particular American ideal could also be a description of Iceberg Slim, a career pimp who turned to writing during the political turmoil of the 1960s. He published a memoir, simply titled Pimp, and a novel, Trick Baby, in 1967, when he was 49, and went on to write several more books, release a spoken-word LP, and see his life and work adapted into multiple film and documentary projects. Inspired by Malcolm X and the Black Panthers, Slim has in turn “massively influenced popular culture through music and film. In terms of that influence he’s probably the most dominant writer since Shakespeare,” Scottish writer Irvine Walsh once claimed. But interest in his work has been relatively confined in recent years, leading The New Yorker writer Robin D. G. Kelley to express her surprise and displeasure “when I encounter well-read people unfamiliar with Iceberg Slim.” With the release this month of a new biography, Street Poison: The Biography of Iceberg Slim by Justin Gifford, there’s reason to hope that his life and work will receive more mainstream attention and consideration. In an interview with Salon, Gifford makes his case for a wider appreciation of Slim.
Another author poised to finally receive well-deserved attention is Lucia Berlin, who Vice called “The Greatest American Writer You’ve Never Heard Of.” Born in the 1930s, Berlin led a relatively migratory childhood and early adulthood, frequently changing towns and working a number of odd jobs. Though she started writing early, Berlin didn’t publish her first collection, Angel’s Laundromat, until she was 45. She followed that first book with several more, along with a teaching position at the University of Colorado, but she’s remained a relatively unrecognized figure. This month, which brings the release of Berlin’s A Manual for Cleaning Women: Selected Stories, has seen her reenter the cultural conversation. Lydia Davis wrote the foreword to the collection; in an excerpt published in The New Yorker she explains her theory regarding forgotten writers: “I have always had faith that the best writers will rise to the top, like cream, sooner or later, and will become exactly as well known as they should be—their work talked about, quoted, taught, performed, filmed, set to music, anthologized.” Davis’s meaning is clear: Berlin is cream, and on the rise. In an article from Literary Hub, Berlin is linked to other well-known and well-loved American women writers and masters of the short story, such as Dorothy Parker, Flannery O’Connor, and Grace Paley, who also bloomed relatively late, publishing her first collection at 37. If you would like to read some of Berlin’s fiction for yourself, FSG has made her story “Angel’s Laundromat” available online as part of its “Work in Progress” blog.
Of course, the writing life has never been particularly easy or prosperous, and Lucia Berlin’s experience working odd jobs, be it as a nurse, a telephone operator or a cleaning woman, is not necessarily unusual. In an essay for Literary Hub Shelley A. Leedahl writes about her struggle to pay her bills even as a published and well-respected author, a struggle which led her to work for a radio station, a Home Depot, and someplace called the Liquor Barn. Her writing captures the daily pull between financial survival and writing at an age where “going back to school” or requesting parental assistance simply isn’t an option.
Not that there’s anything wrong with going to school for creative writing. In fact, Warren Adler, a writer best known for his book The War of the Roses, which he published at age 47, acknowledges that one creative writing class changed his life by making him want to be a novelist. He’s written about the experience in an essay for The Rumpus. The piece, with its emphasis on the importance of fostering creative community, is as relevant to the student headed into their first year in an MFA program as to the writer like Shelley A. Leedahl who’s been living the writing life for a while, waiting for the chance to “rise to the top, like cream.”
As further proof that great writers do indeed rise to the top regardless of age, The Huffington Post’s Jillian Capewell has compiled a list of ten Bloomers she thinks you should read. Several of them, like Jo Ann Beard, Robin Black, Katherine Heiny, and Marian Palaia, have been featured on our site (you can read Bloom’s features on Beard and Heiny here and here, as well as excerpts from Robin Black’s Life Drawing and from Marian Palaia’s The Given World). But there are writers on Capewell’s list who may be new to Bloom readers, such as Elizabeth Strout, who won the Pulitzer at 52 for her book of stories, Olive Kitteridge, and Claire Fuller, author of Our Endless Numbered Days. Fuller in particular has a wonderful perspective on her late-blooming career: “I like to think that all my life experience—children, jobs, travel, love affairs, divorce (not necessarily in that order)—has composted down into a kind of fertile history I can delve into.” To put it another way, life experience makes the cream all the richer.