Categories
Diagnoses

(Re)Creating the Past

by Sam Schuman | Diagnoses | Spring 2021

Stella Mulroney, Undoing

The distinction between “correct” and “true,” or what we talk about when we talk about “history.”


In elementary school, I loved few events more than the Scholastic Book Fair. The Halloween costume parade and Field Day were a treat, but they paled in comparison to giving up a whole class period to venture down to the library (or sometimes a requisitioned art classroom) where I could revel in the glossy covers advertising the latest and greatest in kids’ lit. It strikes me now that this is a relatively wholesome way to transform children into consumers, but I digress.

I was a bookworm, always finishing my classwork early so I could head over to the library nook and bury my nose in How to Eat Fried Worms, or an installment of the Boxcar Children. The Book Fair was the logical next step: a whole room lined wall-to-wall with shelves and tables advertising all manner of material for the up-and-coming reader, from the Magic Tree House to Frindle

Every year, I looked out for the 10 True Tales series, written by Alan Zullo. The conceit was self-explanatory: each book contained 10 nonfiction stories organized around a theme. Some topics were intense, but unobjectionable: Young Survivors of the Holocaust, Surviving Sharks and Other Dangerous Creatures. But zoom out a bit, and a recurring focus emerges: Teens at War, Battle Heroes: Voices from Afghanistan (and a similar book for Iraq), D-Day Heroes. Many of these books are essentially nationalist military histories, recounting deeds of heroism committed by intrepid GIs as they fought for the American way at home and abroad. Reading the series as a kid, I hung onto every word, picturing the battles that Zullo narrated at the pitch of fiction. Children don’t read books with a critical eye to ideological framing; Zullo called these men heroes, and I believed him.

Teens at War is typical of the series. The description from Zullo’s website starts out alright: “Ever since the American Revolution, teenagers have risked their lives to serve in every war this country has fought.” A paragraph later, though, some out-of-pocket framing emerges: “In warfare, most underage soldiers showed their zealous spirit and raw courage, but few were properly prepared for the horrors they would experience.” We’ve now entered what seems to be a pro/con list for letting children serve in the military, although we’re never quite told whose judgment is being applied. The next sentence describes these minors, as young as 12, as “warriors.” Scholastic’s publisher’s description labels their military service “patriotic” and their stories “inspiring.”

With the benefit of hindsight, I see 10 True Tales as pretty gross. But, ideological window-dressing aside, these books are, in an objective sense, accurate. The series boasts that it is “based on true events ripped from the headlines or taken from little-known moments in history.” And that’s the problem: these books are sold to kids as “history” because the events are “true,” which tacitly implies that their rhetorical framing as heroic, inspiring narratives is also somehow “true.” Zullo admits to dramatizing events and recreating dialogue (which sometimes includes racial slurs, “for realism”). But there is still a false consonance between factual veracity and narrative validity in how these “true” tales are presented. And while a kids’ author like Zullo might seem an unlikely point of entry for a screed on the blurry line between historical fact and truth, this is exactly where much of the trouble lies: to make the past accessible, works of popular history conceal the process by which masses of historical documents are converted into ideologically active stories. To understand this process, it’s important to ask: apart from telling a “true” story, what does history do, and what is it for?

***

The American historian Hayden White spent 10 years researching and writing in order to offer a possible answer in his 1973 book Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe. The book studies a number of influential historians and philosophers, tracing the development of the discipline and the idea of “history” across the 1800s, but its analytical framework is fundamentally atemporal. It is a study of history as a rhetorical practice of writing and storytelling, or a “verbal structure in the form of a narrative prose discourse,” in White’s own heady phrasing.

White is concerned with how history, as a linguistic construction of the past, is created through a specific mode of thinking which he terms the “historical consciousness,” or how past events are strung together to create a recognizable historical narrative. Historical consciousness manifests in the formal aspects of a historian’s narrative, evident in their choice of “emplotment” (what sort of dramatic plot arc does a historical narrative take? Comedy? Tragedy?) as well as their historical “grammar” and “syntax”—in other words, the process by which historians fit the past into a coherent story. This formal question of how histories are structured is fundamental to what White calls the “problem of historical knowledge:” what does it mean to think about something “historically,” and what is the point of doing so?

It’s here that we arrive at the distinction between a “fact” and a “truth”—or, to be snarky about it, the difference between something being “wrong” and “dumb.” Metahistory argues that a historical narrative always implies an ideological perspective by virtue of the way it is told. Any history will have characters, and some of those characters tend to emerge as heroes or villains, at least relatively. Certain historical entities are identified as problems or obstacles, and consequently more or less ideal. To take Zullo as an example: American child soldiers are heroes, and anyone trying to kill them is a villain. Other countries are the problem, and the American military is the solution. A historical story is told through facts, but its “truth” occurs at what White terms the “precritical” level. The historian must decide what kind of story to tell before telling it. 

The historical discipline differentiates between “history” and “historiography.” Catch-all definitions are unwieldy, but broadly, “history” is the study of the past, and “historiography” is the study of the historical discipline and its methodology. A “history” is one story, built on specific historical evidence and most often presented as a linear narrative. It attempts to explain why a particular thing happened in the way that it did. Historiography encompasses many histories, and often explains why many things happened the way that they did. It is, as White held, a fundamentally existential pursuit: a particular historiographical viewpoint amounts to an argument about the way the world works. And it’s at this level that history might be “correct” but also “wrong.” Historical whos, whats, whens, and wheres are often settled, and it’s fair to judge a history as more or less accurate on those grounds. But the historical why is virtually never a provable fact. It’s a product of interpretation and argument.

***

At my parents’ house, there is an entire shelf dedicated to housing a series of nonfiction books that my dad grew up reading in the ’50s called Landmark Books. Published between 1950 and 1970, the series employed well-known contemporary authors, some of them Pulitzer Prize winners and not one of them an academic, to cover a wide range of American historical topics, from Paul Revere and the Minute Men to The F.B.I to a Shirley Jackson-penned telling of The Witchcraft of Salem Village. They’re packaged as factual histories, and their perspectives are exemplary of post-WWII American historiography, with all of its assumptions about American exceptionalism and a triumphalist notion of historical progress. 

The 54th book in the series is Robert E. Lee and the Road of Honor, written by journalist Hodding Carter. According to one biography subtitled “The Reconstruction of a Racist” (note the implied redemption plot arc), Carter had been a white supremacist until graduating college, after which he fought for an end to Jim Crow. Authorial intrigue notwithstanding, the book is essentially a hagiography of Lee, chronicling his life from birth to death as a “great American who was guided by something he believed to be the most precious quality in life… a sense of honor.” The book is researched: it quotes primary-source letters at length and offers plenty of historical tidbits about Lee’s upbringing. It gets the “facts” right. The problem is that those facts are used to turn Lee into a hero. What is emphasized is not his role as the Confederacy’s military leader, but the admirable “sense of duty and honor” to his home state of Virginia which compelled him to side with the South. “Honor”—a term never explicitly defined—is used to separate Lee’s assumed motivations from his actions, trumpeting the former and downplaying the latter. The book’s penultimate page claims that “gallantry is our common inheritance, whether our ancestors lost with Lee or won with Grant.” As with Zullo, the facts are right, but the conclusions drawn from those facts are ideologically blinkered—relative and debatable.

Hayden White offers a solution to this nebulous problem of historical objectivity (or lack thereof) in accepting that historical meaning is ultimately subjective: it is formed, rather than found. History is not and can never be value-neutral. “The historian performs an essentially poetic act,” he writes, “in which he prefigures the historical field and constitutes it as a domain upon which to bring to bear specific theories he will use to explain ‘what was really happening’ in it.” Before explaining what a history means, the historian has to construct that history. The past is only—is always—a product of the present.

This idea was (and perhaps remains) controversial, and critics of White who decry the relativism inherent in his position have raised the polemical “Nazi question:” if historical meaning is constructed, imposed rather than essential, then on what historical grounds is one to challenge fascist historiography or even outright Holocaust deniers? White offers several responses, my favorite being his dry observation that “The Nazis were anything but relativists.” But a more instructive answer is that history is ultimately a moral and aesthetic pursuit rather than a scientific one, so fascist history can and should be dismissed precisely because it’s fascist. White cautions against treating historical revisionists “as if they were engaged in the same enterprise… instead of treating them with the contempt and derision they deserve.”

Historical whos, whats, whens, and wheres are often settled, and it’s fair to judge a history as more or less accurate on those grounds. But the historical why is virtually never a provable fact. It’s a product of interpretation and argument.

There is no objective position within history. It’s a destabilizing idea, one that denies history as a neutral proving ground for ideas. It’s impossible to argue, for example, that the collapse of the Soviet Union is proof that socialism is an unviable economic system, or, for that matter, that the Russian Revolution is proof that monarchy is an unviable political system. Those conclusions are theorized, not merely discovered. It may be true that, as The F.B.I. recounts, J. Edgar Hoover was nicknamed “speed” in high school, and that he chose to put his own life at risk in New Orleans in 1936 when he was among the FBI agents who arrested prolific criminal Alvin Karpi. But those isolated facts only become meaningful or usable as historical “evidence” once assimilated into a broader narrative about the FBI that has its own subjective viewpoint. The book’s ultimate historical stance that “every American, young or old, can be proud of his F.B.I.” is a value judgment, not an objective conclusion.

***

Like 10 True Tales, the Landmark Books series is for kids, and it’s particularly easy to dunk on with the benefit of a half-century’s hindsight. But contemporary histories, even didactic ones, still position themselves as purely expository, containers for information sans angle or bias. My high school history textbook, the American Pageant, certainly did. Like many a history textbook, the AP purportedly offers an accurate history that walks a neutral line through historical debates—as if it were possible to find a stance that is not itself an implicit position. Its 16th edition starts with the “Founding of the New Nation,” and asks, “How did the colonists overcome the conflicts that divided them (assumption one), unite against Britain (assumption two), and declare themselves at great cost to be an ‘American’ people (assumption three—does this even mean anything)?” The answers: “reverence for individual liberty, self-government, religious tolerance, and economic opportunity.” 

Along with this self-congratulatory telling is an acknowledgment of the dark side of the early American mentality (or at least AP’s telling of it): “a willingness to subjugate outsiders,” including Indigenous Americans and enslaved people from Africa. A putative commitment to exploring both the good and bad of history obscures that the American Pageant has already made a litany of presuppositions about what constitutes “good,” “bad,” and “history.” At no point is the reader pushed to ask if there is another way to tell this story.

My high school history teachers were progressive. We read some Howard Zinn, and we were taught from the first day of our Civil Rights Movement unit that race is a construct intended to mitigate class conflict. Liberal critiques of American history were common, even encouraged. But dark historical facts never contradicted the fundamental historiographical truth of American progress, of the strength and wisdom of our institutions. Besides, even if they had wanted to (and I suspect they might have), my teachers couldn’t have strayed too far. The textbook was the textbook, and we had an AP exam to take at the end of the year. To my knowledge, only two teachers in the school assigned the Communist Manifesto while I attended. They both taught English.

I took AP United States History over two years, with a different focus each semester: social movements, war and conflict, economics, and finally a history of Revolution-era philosophy. This last focus, known as intellectual history, was particularly interesting to me at the time, and has since become my primary research interest. How did people think in the past? I learned about the enlightenment philosophers: Locke’s and Hobbes’s theories about people in the state of nature, Rousseau’s social contract, Montesquieu’s separation of powers. We were taught that these were the seminal ideas that led to the American state, and, implicitly, that these ideas were superlatively good, if not flawless.

The buck stopped there. With few exceptions, our history of ideas began and ended in the 18th century. You’d think no one had had a worthwhile thought about government since the ink dried on the Constitution. Our philosophical history was strangely ahistorical, because it had been intensely “prefigured,” to use White’s term, intended to contextualize (and legitimize) American institutions more than to stimulate curiosity beyond the clear predetermined takeaways. Ideological questions were presented as done deals. I got As in history, and I believed that the study of history was important, but I graduated high school unable to articulate exactly why. What was the point of asking questions when the answer was the same as it ever was?

***

In my first semester at Oberlin, I started a history major, and things began to click. Professors could explain clearly why the study of history was important, why it was an urgent task. I learned that the “past” is often not really past, because historical memory is a building block of identity. I learned to look for historiographical slant: If this is the story, then what is its lesson? Hayden White is sometimes taught in Historical Methods, the major’s required methodology course. I finally figured out that the point of history isn’t to be “objective” or unbiased. Historical narratives imply a historical viewpoint, which implies a historical subject, which in turn implies subjectivity. 

Reading Metahistory for my own research this year, I learned that academic, source-based history dates back less than two centuries. Thucydides and Plutarch wrote “history” millennia ago, but their historical consciousnesses were drastically different from those of modern historians. For much of its existence, history has been a branch of politics or rhetoric. In the 19th century, the first recognizably modern historians gave the discipline its own autonomy by claiming that it could be purely rational and objective, scientific in the way that the natural sciences were. From there, history has alternately been defended as “science” insofar as historians deny any distortion of the facts, and as “art” insofar as it doesn’t have a unified formal method. Whatever it may be, our conception of “history” is itself historical. There’s no escape.

Which is all well and good. White wrote that the purpose of history is to educate people of “the fact that their own present world had once existed in the minds of men as an unknown and frightening future, but how, as a consequence of specific human decisions, this future had been transformed into a present.” In understanding how we created the present, we become better equipped to create our ideal (defined subjectively, of course) future. Such an understanding of history doesn’t foreclose upon the importance of getting the facts right. History is not fiction; its claims to reveal something about the real world only work if they attend to things that actually happened in that real world. But the facts are the beginning, not the end, of what makes history “true.” Historical narratives exist because someone wants you to see the past in a particular way, and by extension to feel a particular way about the present—and facts, at the end of it all, have very little to do with that.  

Categories
Editors Desk

Editors’ Letter

by Nell Beck and Sam Schuman | Editors Desk | Spring 2021

Image by Katie Frevert

In which Sam and Nell say goodbye and hello.


As a collegiate publication, Wilder Voice operates within a set of nonnegotiable time constraints: the 15-week semester, the two-semester academic year, the four-year bachelor’s degree. These limits are helpful, providing a ready-made arc to our work and dictating the steady tempo at which it advances. They’re also, well, limiting. There’s only so much that can be done in a single semester, and with a collective memory that rarely extends beyond half a decade, inconsistency over time is practically baked in. But limits breed creativity; inconsistency is just a synonym for experimentation. (And besides, there’s no motivator quite like a hard deadline.)

Like last semester, the magazine you’re holding in your hands (or, more likely, reading online) took form against a backdrop of specific, coronavirus-imposed restrictions: the abbreviated academic term, the class of 2023’s conspicuous absence from campus, and a student body burnt out by over a year of Zoom-based learning. The rules might be new and different (and worse), but they’re differences of degree rather than of kind. This issue, like any other, is where the ideal rubs against the real. It’s a collective attempt to wring meaning out of, and instill meaning within, transience. A good story is a good anchor: it’s something to hold onto.

***

In the spirit of finding opportunity (and continuity) within limits, we used this semester to expand our website by digitizing previous editions of WV. You can now view any piece published from fall 2017 onward here at wildervoicemag.com. Plumbing Wilder Voice’s recent past has been an instructive experience. We saw names move up the editorial masthead from semester to semester as a generation of Obies shared important reported stories and wrote through perennial and perennially urgent concerns—gender and identity, personal history, family narratives and their multivalent meanings, political activism and performance—with clarity and precision. The pieces differ in focus, from the history of Mercy Hospital to the founding of the ’Sco, from exploring death as exemplified by a beloved family cat to a series of meditations on the body. What ties them together is a willingness to engage and reengage with big questions and established narratives, to examine what’s been received and endeavor to understand it in a new light—or perhaps rethink it wholesale.

To further this commitment to complexity, we’ve encouraged our contributors in this issue to write longer and deeper, giving their voices more breathing room on the page in order to grapple with events and ideas in all of their intricacies. Lila Templin describes their disillusionment with Oberlin’s culture of wealth and the ways that students conceal their class privilege (“Unequal Footing”). Lilyanna D’Amato returns to her favorite children’s books and relearns to see the world in a new way (“The World from Below”). And Jemma Johnson-Shoucair explores hubris in the second Star Wars prequel and the groundbreaking technology behind it (“The Lucas Effect”). As always, their work is presented alongside striking student artwork, including Vincent Zhu’s photo series Cracked and a series of collages from Katie Frevert.

“The Lucas Effect” is one of two essays appearing in this issue under the heading “Diagnoses.” In this new department, writers articulate and interrogate problems of their choosing, exploring the “why” beyond the “what.” It’s not a space for crankiness so much as a space for synthesis through criticism; the intention is not simply to dunk on vexing phenomena, but to understand them.

As the spring semester comes to a close and we enter a summer of optimism and uncertainty, negotiating limits will remain a pressing task. After an unconventional but rewarding year serving as Wilder Voice’s EICs, we are excited to hand off the first-ever summer installment of Wilder Voice to our incoming Senior Staff: Alexander Saint Franqui, Dorothy Levine, Clara Rosarius, and Fiona Warnick. Their talents have already helped shape the magazine, and we are confident that they will continue to make Wilder Voice a home for Oberlin’s talented body of writers and artists.

—Nell Beck and Sam Schuman
Editors-in-Chief, Wilder Voice

Categories
Institutional Memory

In Conversation With Walter Gordon ’14

by The Editors | Institutional Memory | Web Exclusive

187 North Professor Street, where Wilder Voice’s offices were located during Walter Gordon’s tenure as Editor-in-Chief.

A former Editor-in-Chief chats about favorite mistakes, the editing process, and Lena Dunham’s Girls.


What years did you attend Oberlin and what was your major?

I graduated in 2014 and I majored in English. I almost had a minor but didn’t have a minor. 

What in?

Art history. I think I had enough credits for an art history minor but I didn’t get the paperwork in or something. 

What are you doing now?

I’m finishing up a PhD at Columbia University. I work on African-American literature and energy […] literal energy, like coal, the environment, electricity, things like that, and how they show up in Black writing from the 20th century. 

What years were you a part of Wilder Voice and what positions did you hold there? 

I was just there my last two years. First I was Assistant Editor, then I went straight to EIC. I don’t know how typical that is; it felt fairly typical in a certain way because there weren’t that many options. I was kind of the most senior person on staff even though I had only been there for a year.

How did you get started with WV?

I cannot recall. At that point in my undergraduate life I had done at least one publishing internship at a literary magazine in San Francisco during one of the summers.

Which magazine?

It’s called Zyzzyva. They had me reading the slush pile and writing book reviews. And so by the time I got to my junior year I knew I wanted to do something literary, not directly publishing-related, [and at Oberlin] there were kind of two options, if I recall: there was Wilder Voice and Plum Creek Review, I don’t know if that’s still around.

Yeah, it is. 

Yeah, and they were very different from each other, they have very different processes. And I believe I worked for Plum Creek briefly because it was kind of open, you could just go to a meeting and they would be like, “Alright, you can vote on what gets put in the magazine,” and I did that for maybe a semester before Wilder Voice. And then I jumped ship and went to WV for some reason that I can’t remember, unfortunately.

Did you ever do anything with the Grape or the Review?

I never did anything with the Grape or the Review, I never have been interested in traditional journalism. Which was one thing that was interesting working at Wilder Voice, and maybe this is still the case: when I got there, I was like, “I don’t care about all of the investigative journalism, nor can we do really good investigative journalism with the time and resources we had as undergraduates in this small town—what we can do is more creative work.” So maybe there was a slight shift towards creative stuff when I was there, which I’m curious to see if that’s had an afterlife or if it’s kind of returned to being more nonfiction-oriented. 

“I tried to steer it towards something a little more, I don’t know, a little more Paris Review than Harper’s.”

Right now it’s a lot of personal essays. Some reporting, but not a ton.

Yeah, I think that’s a shift that’s happened over the last 15 years.

When you say “creative pieces,” do you mean fiction and poetry?

Yeah, that was definitely in it, but more leaning towards the kinds of essays you guys are talking about. Less things that are tightly structured investigate pieces and more things that lean para-academic, not quite academic discourse but certainly kind of intellectually engaged, more in that kind of way. 

Do you feel like you played a part in that shift via the decisions you made as EIC?

I think so. I mean, I felt generally like there were only certain things I could make decisions about, and one of the things I couldn’t make decisions about, on a certain level, was content. Because the amount of submissions we got was usually such that we printed, like, two-thirds  of what got submitted, or half, maybe. So there wasn’t really that much that I could do in terms of “I want this type of writing,” you know? ’Cause it was sort of like we were dealing with the body of writers we had available to us, which was one of the problems that Wilder Voice faced while I was there, just expanding that pool of writers to include more people, specifically people of color. But yeah, I tried to steer it towards something a little more, I don’t know, a little more Paris Review than Harper’s

In hindsight, what role do you think Wilder Voice played in your career at Oberlin? 

It was a big deal. It took a lot of my time. I don’t know if this is still the case for you guys, but it was immensely time-consuming. It took—I was just talking to my partner about this—it took just a little less time commitment than all of my other classes put together. And a lot of that was doing the kind of shit that I never do anymore and that at a normal magazine I don’t think an Editor-in-Chief would do, like arranging things on a page, making sure that the magazine looks right and has good margins and all that crap. That took an insane amount of time. And then there was something, I can’t remember the specific structure of it, but we had some kind of thing where there was a two-week period where it was a crazy crunch and everybody had to finish their articles and we had a name for it, and it was like, “You gotta finish your articles and get them from this early stage to basically being done within these weird two weeks in, like, November or something.” That period was insanely stressful. 

In terms of less quotidian ways in which it affected my life, it did push me towards continuing to work in literary magazines, something to do with literary journalism publishing, which I did do for a year after I finished college. I moved to New York, like a good literary Oberlin grad, and I worked at New Directions and New York Review of Books. And I got into grad school at that time, so very quickly kind of abandoned ship, but I was on a clear trajectory towards doing publishing stuff. And that was directly because of working at Wilder Voice and enjoying that work.

Do you have a favorite Wilder Voice memory?

I have quite a few. I have one that I really wanted to ask you about, because I have an indelible memory of this and I wonder if it had any kind of long-lasting effect, which is that—I wouldn’t say this is a favorite memory because it was the source of much stress and shame—but [to print Wilder Voice] we had to go through this crazy process through the school. Like, it was a school contractor who had a contract through Wilder Voice, I don’t know how the people who set up Wilder Voice originally did it but they’re wizards. But anyway, I wrote them a check to print however many magazines and it was some outrageous amount of money, like $9,000 to print the magazine, and I gave them the check and we got charged and the magazines came, and there were half as many magazines as there was supposed to be. And I looked at the charge and they had charged me $4,000-and-something dollars because I have really bad handwriting, and they thought my nine was a four. So we printed half as many magazines as usual, and that ended up being a really good thing because—I don’t know if this is still the case for you guys—but generally there’d be literally a thousand extra magazines that’d be sitting around, and there’d be these boxes and boxes of magazines just sitting around, so that’s a really good memory in a weird way because it was a complete accident that should have been a disaster that was completely fine. 

Do you have a terrible WV memory?

Yeah, I do have a terrible memory. I at one point—maybe it was my first or second semester at the magazine—I  publicly talked shit about a writer. Like, about their piece, among my friends on a porch or something. And I got caught, basically; it got to the writer somehow that I’d been talking shit about them and then they went to Elizabeth [Kuhr], and was like, “Walter is a shithead.” And I had to apologize to the whole staff and apologize to that person profusely and it was really shitty,  but it also… it was an interesting position to be in, to be the head of the magazine and to make the mistake that one is not supposed to make; that was an interesting experience for me. 

What’s your favorite article that you published at WV?

That’s a tough question. There was a really good one on a porn star, like on a relationship that a student had to a porn star in the virtual world, and the kind of place that this porn star held in their sexual idenitity. There was a really good one about selfies that I feel like came out at a good time when the world wasn’t yet inundated by writing about selfies. I don’t think selfies are undertheorized at this point; when this kid wrote about selfies it was still fairly fresh. That one was cool. I also had a couple of friends who interviewed a bounty hunter. Apparently it’s not a very good piece in retrospect, but I recall having a lot of fun putting it together and getting them to interview this bounty hunter and stuff, that was cool. Those are the ones that I recall the clearest. I really like—when I took over we switched the format of the visual art section. Previously there was some art and then maybe some writing from the artists about their art, and then when I did it, I had our Art Editor interview artists instead, and that felt pretty good, I remember quite liking what came out of those. Those are all highlights. 

It was an interesting position to be in, to be the head of the magazine and to make the mistake that one is not supposed to make.

Did WV have any type of “reputation” on campus? 

Honestly, not really. I feel like it was very under-the-radar, like people knew Plum Creek way better than WV and what WV was, because I think it was very ambiguous to people, partially because of the way in which it was about news but also literary. [That] was very confusing to people, and the whole super-long editorial process that we did kind of created a bubble around WV. The people who were involved with it knew what it was but I think very few others did. I would guess it had a reputation of being kind of pretentious or something, which is not a word I use very often or one that I think is very helpful, but I would imagine that’s how some people understood it, to an extent. Maybe a little less artsy than PC but still somehow intellectually prepossessing and intimidating is how I would put it. Certainly took itself more seriously than the Grape.  

What do you think is the most essential part of Wilder Voice that makes it Wilder Voice?

I mean, definitely partially it was the editorial process. As much as I hated it and bucked against it, and found it counterintuitive and frustrating, it definitely was unique and did produce a certain environment for writers that I think is kind of rare. Like now what I teach is basically a freshman seminar but without a theme, it’s just how to write for college. And the basic point of that class is it’s the only time they’ll ever get to run, like, six drafts by a professional writer and get responses constantly, and Wilder Voice did something kind of similar, even though it wasn’t professional or whatever: somebody who’s supposedly pretty good at editing, and had people above them who were even better supposedly, and so it was a unique situation, the kind of setup for helping to cultivate writing skills. So that definitely was vital. 

And then another thing was the variety of forms—which again, as much as I griped about the ambiguity of the investigative journalism shtick, it was cool that we had reporting and creative nonfiction and poetry and art and  totally weird kinds of creative writing that were something else entirely. I really felt like we could put anything in it which was cool, which I really took advantage of my second semester. 

I published a really weird thing that I wrote half of, because I was just like, “I’m in charge, I can do whatever the fuck I want,” so we did this thing that was called—I don’t have acces to any of these old magazines so I can’t look back at this so I can’t remember what it was called exactly—but it was something in Latin and it folded out and it was a bunch of word definitions or etymologies of words, some of which were completely fictional and some of which were real. And I thought that was very cool, that I could put this in that [issue] was like, what is that even? So that to me is a basic tenet of Wilder Voice: it’s kind of formless and can kind of take on whatever kind of thing can be literally put in the pages. Or even now that you’re digital, you don’t even have to deal with fitting in pages. Which is probably something to think about. How can you take advantage of the situation that you’re in, you know? 

We’d love to hear about your view on the editorial process at Wilder Voice, specifically what frustrated you about it and how you went about trying to change it or refine it.

I don’t think I did change it very much. It was one of the things that I was like, “This is too much of a fucking, like, iceberg.” I only had a year to make changes, but if I remember it was just difficult that there was often tension between writers and editors, because the writer would have an idea for what they wanted to do and then the editor [would have] conversations with everyone else on staff who were very opinionated… and the writer was not privy to those conversations, right, and so we’d come back with all this stuff and the writer would be like “Where is all this coming from? Why are you not responding to me?” So that was a major problem, there was a major emphasis on collaboration between editors which was perhaps detrimental in the way that it was kind of done without transparency. That was frustrating to me. A lot of writers just found it incomprehensible why they were being asked to produce something new. A lot of people wanted to come to Wilder Voice and be like, “Yeah I wrote this cool essay, can I publish it?” And we’d be like, “No, actually you have to start a new thing.” Why go through the editorial process itself when you have this finished thing that will just go through months of editing? So those were the kind of issues I had with it. Like I said, I think there were a lot of good things about it, that it did in certain circumstances really foster a relationship between an editor and a writer that really helped the writer to develop, but that was not the most common experience.

Do you think you would have done anything differently as EIC in hindsight?

I probably would have placed more of my energy into widening the audience and the pool of writers that WV reached. There was a really kind of depressing thing that happened where about halfway through the year a poster went up for another literary magazine that was Black-run, like everyone on staff was Black, and they were trying to get mostly Black writers or something like that, and on the poster it said they were the only magazine in Oberlin run by a POC, and I’m a POC, and so it was this real moment for me where I was like, “Damn, you know, it’s a surprise to me that I’m not always visible as such to people.” That is something I’ve come to terms with over the course of my life, obviously, but the fact was that that should have been acknowledged, that should have been passed out to people outside of the small realm in which I lived. So that was super disappointing for me. And my response to that was partially—I mean, we did a little more outreach but not much, like we didn’t really know how to do more outreach, but what we did do is I think the poetry section was all Black writers or all writers of color, maybe, for a semester or maybe two semesters. But that to me is a kind of band-aid. It’s just kind of amplifying voices, but what you really need to be doing is kind of cultivating more and creating more connections where they’re totally missing. So that probably would have been more of an emphasis—but it’s hard to do that. Again, this is why institutional memory’s important. Like, there was no evidence that that had been a project that anyone before me had taken in any kind of similar way. There was no kind of precedent for how I might go about doing that, so it’s good to talk to people and see what has been tried in the past and fix problems that are still problems. 

Is there anything we should’ve asked but didn’t? 

Not really. But I have one question, actually. One very small change I made was that the magazine looked almost exactly the same. Specifically the cover was always this evocative image and then like a bar and then Wilder Voice in full volume, and I think my first semester we were really struggling to come up with a cover and I was like, “What if we just put a circle and then a ‘WV’ inside of the circle?” and that’s what we ended up doing, and it looked really cool, so I was just wondering if the cover’s reverted to being the same every time, or if it’s looser now. I know that it changed shape, which is very exciting. Like in the two years after I left it shrunk significantly which I think is smart.

The little “WV” circle is still around.

Current (left) and former (right) “WV” circles.

I feel like that’s another thing about WV: our designers were fucking sick… I was always happy with how the magazine read. To be frank with you I was not thrilled with all of the pieces but I always liked how it looked. It looked very professional. Have you spoken to a lot of editors?

We did a big group interview with the ones who, like, took it over from Lena Dunham.

Right, right. Have you gotten Lena Dunham?

Her publicist didn’t get back to us. And it would ultimately be harmful to us.

Is she widely reviled on campus at this point? 

Yeah, we think.

That’s super interesting because when I was there it was, like, the birth of Lena Dunham. I was there from 2010–2014, and Girls must have come out in 2013, so it was like, “Woah, Lena Dunham got famous.” So there was very much a more complicated—like, everyone hated her but ultimately was just mega jealous. Half the people in the Creative Writing Department were like, “She took my shit!”

Walter Gordon graduated from Oberlin in 2014 with a degree in English. He is currently a graduate student at Columbia University.

Photo by Sam Schuman.

Categories
Editors Desk

Editors’ Letter

by Nell Beck and Sam Schuman | Editors Desk | Fall 2020

Image by Leah Rosenthal

Welcome to the 30th issue of Wilder Voice.


When we began planning this issue in June, we faced far more unknowns than knowns. Oberlin had yet to announce its three-semester schedule for the academic year, and staff turnover left us with a Wilder Voice crew of just three, to say nothing of the broader world-historic events occuring around us. We knew that our work would continue, but the form that that traditionally print-forward work would take was far from assured.

We decided to embrace these disruptions by looking backwards to Wilder Voice’s institutional past as we imagined how the magazine would operate differently this year. We set to work on a brand-new website to accommodate Oberlin’s mandated shift to online publication, and we began to reach out to former Wilder Voice editors to get a sense of what the magazine has meant to Oberlin’s community of writers and readers throughout its history. In September, we celebrated the launch of wildervoicemag.com. And with the new site, we began a new web-exclusive interview series, “Institutional Memory,” which explores the magazine’s past through conversations with former staff members.

We also modified our editorial process to give every piece we publish an even greater level of attention and care, and updated our style guide to make it more inclusive and up to date—adding in obligatory rules for pandemic-related terms like “Zooming,” for instance. This Editors’ Letter is itself a new addition to the magazine, a chance for us to tell you directly why we’re excited about this semester’s iteration of Wilder Voice.

All of these changes have been made so that we might better pursue Wilder Voice’s primary goal: providing Oberlin students with a space for true stories. And this issue marks some of the magazine’s most intimate pieces yet: Fiona Warnick dives deep into her personal relationship with shopping malls and the gender politics they imply (“Me, The Mall, And I”); Mary Brody discusses living in a house with three visual artists and speaks with her roommates about their work (“Visual Processes”); and Aniella Day shares a moving account of the death of her brother, who would have graduated from Oberlin this spring (“AIDEN”).

***

It feels trite, at this point, to invoke the coronavirus pandemic in a note of this kind, but it feels equally dishonest to ignore it. It’s simply a fact of Oberlin life, one we tacitly acknowledged every day this fall as we attended masked meetings in large rooms and did our level best to stay present and focused over Zoom calls. None of the works you’ll find in this issue take COVID-19 as their direct subject, but none of them elide it, either. They remind us that although the pandemic remains foundational to our daily lives, the way that it is experienced is far from monolithic.

Now, as always, stories are unfolding, and they deserve to be shared. As the coronavirus has narrowed public life considerably, those stories have only become more personal. To say that they are stronger for it would be to impose a specious silver lining on a global tragedy which has, at press time, killed over 1.5 million people—many of them already marginalized. But, in the midst of the bizarre social circumstance we are enduring, telling stories remains as meaningful as ever.

So welcome to the 30th issue of Wilder Voice. We hope that the time you spend here will be as rewarding for you as it has been for us.

—Nell Beck and Sam Schuman
Editors-in-Chief, Wilder Voice

Categories
Summer Reading

Quarantine Companions

by Sam Schuman | Summer Reading | Web Exclusive

In isolation, pets, like books, can be a saving grace—just ask Virginia Woolf.


Coronavirus hasn’t been easy on anybody, although its effects are, of course, asymmetrically felt. But Max doesn’t seem to be bothered by the pandemic one bit. If anything, he’s got it better now than ever: the whole family (stuck) at home, occasionally desperate for a break from one another and always willing to confide in him, the only member of the household who will never judge or give an undesirable reply. This is because Max can’t speak—he’s our nine-year-old silver tiger tabby cat. Since my brother and I left home for college, he’s also become my parents’ de facto third child. 

In addition to his obvious verbal limitation, Max, with his namesake silver fur, inquisitive seafoam eyes, and ears like triangular radar dishes, has a physical one, too: he’s only got three legs, the result of an accident when he was just months old, before we adopted him. (I’ve tried, unsuccessfully, to make “we got hungry” the go-to family retort when visitors ask about him.) He’s not bothered by his missing hind leg, as far as I can tell. To the contrary, he enjoys every creature comfort of the suburban housecat life: hopping onto beds, chairs, couches, tables, and laptops to nap as desired, mewling incessantly should he find something disagreeable with his Fancy Feast dinner, stalking small game in our yard.

My relationship with Max hasn’t changed at all since the pandemic. It’s the same routine, day in and day out, of daring escapes from our front door and bait-and-switch playfulness that ends, more often than not, with claws out and skin broken. While I watch the news with my parents, Max studiously cleans himself next to us, totally unaware of rising Covid death tolls, horrifying police violence, and increasingly common climate disasters. He’s something of an anchor in the house, a living thing who demands care and attention, and provides some of his own in return, without any concern for the mounting human exigencies that 2020 seems hell-bent on delivering.

***

Elizabeth Barrett Browning was a prolific Victorian poet who rivaled Tennyson for the title of U.K. Poet Laureate after Wordsworth’s death—far from a trivial figure in English letters. But, I should admit here, I had never heard of her until last month, when, finally having some downtime, I read Virginia Woolf’s Flush: A Biography. Billed by my slim, black Penguin Classics edition as a “playful, witty biography of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s pet spaniel,” the 100-pages-and-change novella is a fascinating cross-genre work. Woolf constructs an imaginative piece of nominal nonfiction narrated by Barrett Browning’s eponymous dog, Flush, out of the scant documentary evidence of his life found in the 19th-century writer’s corpus. Her poems and letters serve as literary clues, points of creative departure like, “A head as hairy as Faunus, thrust its way / Right sudden against my face,—two golden-clear / Great eyes astonished mine,—a dropping ear / Did flap me on either cheek to dry the spray!” Flush was Woolf’s best-selling book to date when it was published in 1933, but it’s among her most neglected today.

I was initially more interested in Woolf’s presentation of the dog than in her treatment of its owner. The back cover seemed to encourage such a focus, proclaiming that the text “asks what it is to be a dog, and a human.” My myopic entry point led me far astray of most critical interpretations of Flush, which take the work as a feminist allegory, a modernist critique of London, or an exploration of class conflict. Instead, what gripped me, reading Flush in this moment, were the descriptions of the spaniel’s life with Ms. Barrett, a sickly woman who spends her days almost entirely confined to a posh room in her family home on London’s Wimpole Street, simulating a (highly privileged) sort of quarantine. While Ms. Barrett spends her days recumbent or hunched over writing, Flush sleeps at her feet. It’s a study in forced, if not reluctant, intimacy. 

***

Flush is a priceless gift to Ms. Barrett from her poor, maternalistic friend and fellow writer, Mary Russell Mitford. Raised in a working-class cottage since birth, young Flush is accustomed to romping Pan-like through wild English fields, not to Ms. Barrett’s dimly lit, aristocratic chamber, with its large looking glass, multiple marble busts, and elaborate furniture. His initial response to the room, Woolf postulates, is that of “a scholar who has descended step by step into a mausoleum and there finds himself in a crypt, crusted with fungus, slimy with mould, exuding sour smells of decay and antiquity.” But Flush is not a scholar; he is a spaniel, and a well-bred and sensitive one at that. He quickly develops a curious relationship with Ms. Barrett. Within moments of their meeting, Woolf tells us, “There was a likeness between them. As they gazed at each other each felt: Here am I—and then each felt: But how different!”

Trapped in her room, where she compares herself to a caged bird, Ms. Barrett writes frequently. “There she would lie hour after hour passing her hand over a white page with a black stick; and her eyes would suddenly fill with tears; but why?” Flush wonders. This misunderstanding, far from creating a gulf between the two recluses, leads to “a bond, an uncomfortable yet thrilling tightness.” Without words to get in the way, they form a “peculiar intimacy” immune to any sort of misinterpretation, doublespeak, or half-truth. They can do nothing except understand each other perfectly.

As 1842 slips into 1843, then 1844, then 1845, writing and Flush, Flush and writing, remain Ms. Barrett’s personal world. There’s a certain unity achieved. A pet, after all, can’t talk back any more than a piece of stationary can. Can’t edit, can’t rebut, can’t compliment, can’t question, can’t crack a joke. But pets aren’t stationary. They can console and comfort and play and offer a physical warmth that pen and paper will never match. In that quiet, cloistered room on Wimpole Street, desk and dog become two sides of the same coin, fulfilling, respectively, all the needs that words can, and all those that they cannot.

***

Ms. Barrett’s poetry eventually attracts the attention of Robert Browning, another London poet, and the two strike up a written correspondence. Browning soon begins to call on Ms. Barrett in person, and her relationship with Flush is forever changed as she slowly comes out of her shell, supplementing their bond with a new kind of thrilling affection. But her dedication to Flush, and his to her, is apparent throughout the human courtship. When local petty criminals kidnap Flush, Ms. Barrett disobeys Mr. Browning and her family and takes an unprecedented risk by traveling to the thieves’ dilapidated house in rough-and-tumble Shoreditch to personally demand the dog’s safe return. Once Flush has at last arrived back at Wimpole Street, Woolf relates, he “read her feelings more clearly than ever before. They had been parted; now they were together. Indeed they had never been so much akin.” 

Ms. Barrett and Mr. Browning elope and move to Italy, where “just as Mrs. Browning was exploring her new freedom and delighting in the discoveries she made, so Flush too was making his discoveries and exploring his freedom.” Both woman and canine find new sources of excitement and fulfillment, and their relationship becomes “far less emotional now than in the old days; she no longer needed his red fur and his bright eyes to give her what her own experience lacked.” Flush, for his part, is now his own master. He “goes out by himself, and stays hours together,” Woolf quotes from Mrs. Browning’s letters. Yet, through all this, we are assured, “the tie which bound them together was undeniably still binding.” When it comes time for Flush to die, he is reposed in a Florentine marketplace. Seized by some unspeakable, but perhaps entirely knowable, urge, he wakes with a start, makes a beeline for Mrs. Browning’s home, and dies in her arms. Woolf’s description of the mortal moment is matter-of-fact: “He had been alive; he was now dead.” But this near-monosyllabic narration isn’t detachment; it’s earned brevity in a relationship that was never verbal in the first place.

Such getaways, where separation may make the heart grow fonder, are out of the question at present. Like Ms. Barrett, we’re pretty much stuck in our rooms, hemmed in by distractions digital and print, and, if we’re lucky, a furry companion or two. Neither books nor pets care much for our personal affairs. Their indifference lends them stability. The world turns, but text on the page doesn’t rearrange itself. Crises unfold, but Max still hops around on his three legs, never seeming any the worse for wear as he begs each morning to be let outside to sunbathe on our front porch and terrorize any birds foolish enough to venture into our front yard. Yet neither relationship is entirely one-sided. Books yield new meanings as we read and reread them, finding ourselves “seen” in entirely new ways. And pets, living things that they are, often seem to know when we need them the most. 

This is, perhaps, their primary dissimilarity: books, for all of their interactivity, are static. The best ones almost always outlive their authors. The average housecat, on the other hand, lives no more than two decades. Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s poetry is still read today. Flush, Woolf reports in an endnote, has been buried in the vaults of a 15th-century patrician house in Italy for over a century. Ephemerality makes all the difference. My copy of Flush, although it is mine, is ultimately a monolith. But Max and I, we’re in this together.

Sam Schuman is a fourth-year College student and Editor-in-Chief of Wilder Voice.