Wednesday, October 2nd at 7pm at DG Wills Book Store
By Jim Miller
San Diego City Works Press is proud to announce the publication of The Encyclopedia of Rebels by local author and UCSD writing teacher, Mel Freilicher. The book plays with the intersections between history, fiction, memoir, fantasy, and mystery. As Pulitzer Prize winning poet Rae Armantrout puts it, “You could call this both an outrageous comedy and a credible look at the world we live in.”
Mel Freilicher will read from his new book this Wednesday, at 7 PM at D.G. Wills Book Store at 7461 Girard Ave in La Jolla on WEDNESDAY, OCTOBER 2nd at 7 pm as part of the San Diego City College International Book Fair.
I have known Mel Freilicher for many years from our time working together on Fiction International at San Diego State in the late eighties and early nineties, to our collaborations together at City Works Press, which published his first book, The Unmaking of Americans: Seven Lives a few years ago in 2008 when it won a San Diego Book Award.
A fine writer with a unique style and a critical eye, Freilicher’s works offer a one-of-a-kind view of history—radical, inspiring, ironic, and tragic all at the same time. Recently, I had the pleasure of asking him about The Encyclopedia of Rebels.
Tell me about your book. What is it about? Why should people be interested in it?
This book is a collection of pieces I’ve written over the years, with the longest, title piece being the most recent. Most have a focus on one or more radical figures from the past: some well known today like Jane Addams (maybe), or John Brown, or in their own day (Clarence Darrow, Mother Jones), others more obscure.
A considerable amount of biographical and historical research and referenced information is mixed in with autobiographical, fictional, essay-like and dramatic elements, hopefully in unexpected, provocative, and mostly funny ways. In some basic sense, processing texts has been central to my writing for a long time. The intention is not to obscure or fictionalize the actual information, but to engage and sustain the reader’s interest while giving them a break both from the amount of detail, and the often tragic quality of the tales (or at least of the endings of many individuals‘ lives).
Personally, I’ve been trying to gain a better understanding about what motivated these admirable socialists, anarchists, revolutionaries of the past to persevere, usually in the face of massive repression and oppression. Partly because I spent 15 or so years as a grassroots activist, I have a sense of how difficult it is, for so many reasons, to keep the faith–to sustain commitment to that type of work.
Also, teaching writing for decades at UCSD has forcibly brought home the realization that students know little about history of societies and their emergent cultures–even about the evolution of specific literary genres like fiction and drama which they‘re utilizing–let alone about our horrific legacy of racism, nationalism, and elitism: so institutionalized and “normalized” now that many salient issues seem rarely to even be addressed, except by some academics. Students often don’t recognize the value of historical knowledge and perspectives in understanding cultural production; or, as keys to their own efforts to articulate and achieve intellectual, personal, and artistic goals.
The Encyclopedia of Rebels is not a conventional narrative. How would you characterize it in terms of genre and style? Why do you choose to use these tools rather than more traditional ones?
The books I love reading and rereading are the great, often massive, European, Russian and American 19th century novels: the heyday of the novel. (I do read some contemporary fiction, not enough.) Quite awhile ago, I realized that, for me, making up characters seemed anachronistic and pointless–because of the quantity both of wonderful novels already out there, as well as compelling, often little known or untold stories about real people‘s lives.
Historical writing often seems akin to fiction to me, especially when it centers around personalities which have been reconstructed and variously interpreted. I used to write a lot of book reviews, and I feel that my current writing sometimes fulfills a similar desire: to examine and comment on the assumptions and perspectives of particular biographers and cultural historians.
In nonfiction, I’m particularly on the lookout for stunning and revealing nuggets of anecdotes, and telling factoids, which I couldn’t possibly make up. For instance, in the bio of Dalton Trumbo, author of the powerful anti-war novel, Johnny Got His Gun, and blacklisted screenwriter of Spartacus, I read that as a young man, he worked at a bookstore owned by a blind WWI vet. Every morning, Trumbo would guide him to the store, and put his glass eyes in a pan of warm water: otherwise, they would have frozen in the sockets.
A telling fact from a Mary Todd Lincoln bio: women dying in childbirth was very common then, of course, and infant mortality rates heartbreakingly high; doctors could do virtually nothing. The popular midwifery manual of the day still urged bloodletting: in it, one doctor boasted that in his lifetime, before, during and after births, he had let over 100 barrels of blood.
About contemporary work, I’ve always had a preference for experimental art and literature (which doesn‘t necessarily translate to obscure or unaesthetic), for the “avant-garde” (a term tending to be disdained these days), which generally involves pushing boundaries, and moving genres into previously under-explored or even not-yet-conceived-of territory.
I feel that most “creative writers” today who use traditional forms (which often came out of brilliant 19th century experiments) in more or less familiar ways are putting themselves in a somewhat self-defeating position: expectations about the nature of the form, and of the genre itself (their own and their readers’), tend to dictate the pacing, twists and turns of the story line, or sequence of observations and conclusions–thus, to my way of thinking, largely determining the subject matter, the content (or at least how it will be received).
Experimenting with forms–which certainly includes inverting, imploding and otherwise manipulating traditional elements, materials, and narrative conventions–inevitably limits your potential audience; this kind of consideration is inherent in strategic decisions that artists of any kind must make when trying to create and distribute work. For me, a lot of these decisions simply come down to which texts to juxtapose–how and why materials and information are chosen, recontextualized, and/or self-generated: pretty standard postmodern tactics, including “appropriation,” as it’s somewhat inappropriately called–“lifting” others’ writings.
The piece in Encyclopedia on the late writer Kathy Acker probably qualifies as a more or less traditional essay which involves a kind of built in metaphysics: a pondering “I” examining aspects of the phenomenal world that remain evidently unknowable.
In your book you deal with a wide range of figures on the left and/or in the American counterculture. What interests you about these people? Tell me about the figures that you personally find the most compelling. Why?
I tend toward writing about American rebels because I start with an up close view of how institutionalized racism, neo-liberal globalism and the education system which serves it continue to wreck the lives of so many people today. I also have some foundation of knowledge about our history, especially about American dissenters.
I’ve read works of many other intriguing figures like Rosa Luxemburg, Trotsky, C.L. R. James, Prince Kropotkin, Paulo Freire, Frantz Fanon, Emma Goldman, and displaced European WWII émigrés, especially Bertolt Brecht and Hannah Arendt. But I often feel that I don’t understand enough about their contexts to adequately comprehend their life choices, or what options might have been possible for them. (Like virtually all Americans, my knowledge about the history of huge parts of the globe–Central Asia, Africa–is practically nil.)
A huge film buff, I’ve written about movies–also painting, another favorite subject–but lately, exploring those topics seems not less satisfying, but less urgent. I also find it hard to focus too intensively on contemporary issues and struggles, because our era seems so sad: debased and dumbed-down, and the odds appear to be so great against people succeeding who don’t come from money.
I tend to look toward the past for greater optimism and hope, also trying to apprehend comparative mentalities or states of catastrophe: especially to the Progressive era preceding WWI (at which point everything seemed to just go to shit more or less permanently). I’m always fighting my own tendency to idealize certain historical periods and truly admirable groups and movements like the Wobblies (IWW) or the Black Panthers, and individuals like ‘Big Bill’ Haywood, Mother Jones, and Malcolm X.
Reading their biographies tends to be corrective. Not that these individuals necessarily seem less heroic, but contexts reveal the perpetual ego conflicts, personality clashes, wrong-headed decisions, and counterproductive (to reel politick) ideological struggles on the left. In other words, these figures and movements become more human.
The title piece in this volume chiefly concerns John Brown and other abolitionists, though it’s far-ranging and goes into some depth about Upton Sinclair, Jane Addams, Dalton Trumbo, IWW and labor leaders like Mother Jones, and Thompson. I’ve been particularly interested in the decade leading up to the Civil War, since the coming conflagration must have seemed so inevitable to thinking people–especially once the Fugitive Slave Law was passed. (Indeed, the Transcendentalists–viewing slavery as an unredeemable evil–were urging secession for at least as long as Southern politicians.)
My somewhat haphazard researching process did unearth several fascinating individuals who appear in the book, about whom my knowledge was scanty or non-existent: a number of diehard abolitionists like editor Elijah P. Lovejoy, murdered while defending assaults on his printing press; Calamity Jane; Frances Perkins (the first female Cabinet member, FDR‘s Secretary of Labor, and architect of much of the New Deal legislation); Dr. Marie Equi, lesbian physician, abortionist, and IWW supporter.
The “funny parts” I added to the “Encyclopedia” piece at first were very different from what’s there now, which are mostly autobiographical anecdotes of some of my experiences in the New Left, and a few with oddball family members. I spent quite a bit of time on the initial drafts: once they were in a state of reasonable completion, I could finally admit that the comic relief sections were just silly. (Note Virginia Woolf’s advice regarding self-editing: “murder the little darlings.”)
As this long piece developed its focus, I realized I was trying to reconcile, in a variety of ways, my deep admiration for committed activists with my own withdrawal from that arena. Many of the pieces in this book tend to be working out–or at least laying out–some of the more thorny and enduring “issues” regarding my own behavior and life choices. I’m hoping that rather personal inquiry will interest some readers, too.