From the time I knew there was a place called France, I wanted to go there. When I was a little girl, in my mind France was a place where kings and queens lived in castles situated in lovely, verdant valleys. As I became a little bit older, I became vaguely aware that it was a place where they spoke a language so beautiful the words had a kind of sensuality about them. (This was before I knew the word “sensuality.”) I studied French in junior high, high school, and college, and by the time I had dropped out of my first college after a year and a half, and was living temporarily back in Coon Rapids with my parents, the desire to go there was beginning to become a quiet, desperate, and unhealthy obsession.
I knew this one Sunday afternoon when, as I was walking along the road to visit a friend half a mile away, I found myself muttering to myself, over and over, the delicious words, “le roi du coeur; le roi du coeur; le roi du coeur,” practically the whole way there. I had seen the film of the same name in an art film house in Minneapolis the night before and could not let go of those lovely words, nor of the pleasure of speaking them aloud. “Either I am going to have to get over there,” I announced, to myself, aloud, in English. “Or I am going to become a lunatic.”
But it was a while before I was able to get there. Flying to Europe was very expensive in the late 1970s, and for someone who was earning her living as a typist, being able to save enough money to buy the plane ticket was going to take a while.
That is why I was so excited when, one day on the CBS Evening News, Dan Rather announced that an English businessman, Freddie Laker, had just started a no-frills airline that was offering flights from New York to London for the unheard-of price of, I think it was $199. “Okay, that’s it,” I said to myself as I listened to the rest of the story. “Now I can do it.”
Getting over there was now feasible, but I knew once I got there I would want to be able to stay for a while. So I decided, then and there, that I would work and save as much money as I could for the next year, and leave for Europe the following September. I began to plan the trip with a girlfriend.
To his credit my boyfriend, who was about 15 years older than me, and who probably knew he risked losing me by encouraging me in this venture, was very supportive of my plan. Not once did he use his considerable powers of persuasion to try to dissuade me from stepping out into the world on my own. On the contrary. When the time came for me to go a year later and the girlfriend was unable to join me, I hesitated: he urged me on, and drove me to New York to catch the plane. The only influence he tried to exercise was just before I left, when he sang the praises of his beloved London long and hard enough that he convinced me I really ought to stay there for at least a few days before going on to France. Anglophile that he was, and nothing if not eloquent, he convinced me to do so, and I didn’t regret it.
But I wasn’t about to fall in love with London. I had been waiting all my life to get to France, and now I was almost there. I stayed with the friend of a friend who was studying at the London School of Economics and who had a shared flat in Earl’s Court. We went to the theater and the symphony, we ate wonderful Indian food together, he helped me plan my trip. London was wonderful, but it was not my destination: within a week I was on my way to France…
Janet Hulstrand is a writer, editor, writing coach, and teacher of writing and literature based in Silver Spring, Maryland. Each summer she teaches a literature course in Paris, for Queens College, CUNY (“Paris: A Literary Adventure“). She also teaches culture and literature courses at Politics & Prose bookstore in Washington D.C., and writing workshops in the Champagne region of France. This is an excerpt from her work in progress, “A Long Way from Iowa: Living the Dream Deferred.”
In 1892, when my grandmother was born there, Bonair, Iowa was a town with 30 inhabitants. My great-grandparents, Lewis Philander and Nellie Caroline Sanborn, had moved there not long before from Plymouth Rock, Iowa with their two older girls, Ini and May, aged eight and ten. L. P. Sanborn, as he was known, owned the flour mill. My grandmother’s recollections of the Bonair of her girlhood, which she recorded in 1971 when she was 79, included a lumberyard, a grain elevator, and a school about a mile or so east of town. (“The ones in the town didn’t like that so we had a second school upstairs over one of the stores. That was where I started to school, a cracker box, wooden of course, was my desk and Mother brought a small chair for me from home. I was up in the middle grades when they built the schoolhouse.”)
As the town grew, there were improvements: in 1897, the Lime Springs Sun hailed the spanning of Bonair’s main street with “an artistic sidewalk of the latest design, by means of which one can now cross the street without wading knee deep in the mud.” In that same year, the paper reported that my grandmother’s father had purchased the general store owned by Mr. Webster, and now had “one of the finest residences in the city.” My great-grandparents had built a new storefront alongside the old store, which had been on the first floor of a house. They turned the old storefront into a living room and bedroom, and now with three extra bedrooms that they didn’t use, could take in boarders.
Mother served meals to anyone coming or going that wanted to eat, so you could say she had a boarding house I suppose. There was Clare Barrett, the depot agent, Harry Dawes, lumber yard, Mike Welch, blacksmith. Then others coming and going. A grain elevator man, a stock buyer. She generally had a table full. As the years went by it seemed that married men had the jobs and she wasn’t busy, but the teacher often stayed there, and a student preacher would come from Fayette each weekend and stay there.
L. P. Sanborn had bought his business at a good time: in three short years, by 1897, the population of Bonair had more than tripled, to 100. There was now a creamery, a dealer of farm implements, two music teachers, a carpenter, a restaurant, a livery, and a barbershop. In addition to running his general and feed store, L. P. Sanborn was the town postmaster. Two years later, in 1899, there would be a new Methodist church, of which my great-grandmother was treasurer, and a schoolhouse on the edge of town, in which “Miss Vinnie Carman handles the birch and teaches the young idea how to shoot,” as reported by one of the Cresco newspapers, in an apparent reference to the widespread belief of the time that “to spare the rod” was to spoil the child.
While it was at its peak in those days at the turn of the twentieth century, Bonair always had to struggle to survive. News items from the same time period expressed anxiety over the fate of the creamery: one, in April of 1897 commented that “If wind were the only thing needful to start a creamery, the one in this city, instead of remaining idle, would be running day and night.” A few months later it was noted with relief that the creamery had “at last” been rented, and would soon be put into motion.
I had the general impression from the way my Mom had talked about her that Nellie Punteney Sanborn, my great-grandmother, was a rather formidable figure, but I wasn’t sure if her formidability was on the whole a good or a bad thing. One of the things I found during my research, in her personal Bible, was a newspaper clipping about a revival company that had come to town in December of 1892, the year my grandmother was born. Nellie had carefully recorded, on a piece of paper secured in the pages of that Bible, the fact that in December 1892, she had “consecrated her life to Christ.” A newspaper clipping describing the revival preacher, pianist, and singers was next to that. And another note said that L. P. Sanborn had consecrated his life to Christ in 1914. What happened in the intervening 22 years, I wondered. How did he hold out for so long? Was it a friendly or a hostile waiting period? And what was that like for my grandmother as a child?
Clearly my grandmother had absorbed a vivid and acute sense of right and wrong. One of her school essays, entitled “Sidewalk Education,” carefully outlined an argument against people allowing their children to run free in the streets of the town, where they would be exposed to “the bad element as well as the good….What can their parents be thinking of to let them do this! and probably the reason is they don’t think at all,” she wrote. “If asked they will say, ‘The children want to play on the street, why not let them?’,” and added, “Who does not know that it is easier for a child to learn bad habits than good?”
But her moral stance was not devoid of compassion. She ended her essay on a softer note, asking, “Can we not help this in some way by providing proper ways of amusing them? They are not bad at heart and surely something must be done.”…
Janet Hulstrand is a writer, editor, writing coach, and teacher of writing and literature based in Silver Spring, Maryland. Each summer she teaches a literature course in Paris, for Queens College, CUNY (“Paris: A Literary Adventure“). She also teaches culture and literature courses at Politics & Prose bookstore in Washington D.C. This is an excerpt from her work in progress, “A Long Way from Iowa: Living the Dream Deferred.”
Well, it is probably about time to turn my thoughts toward home.
Actually, they have never really left there. When I was living in New York City in my mid-twenties (35 years ago), one of my best friends made me aware that being from the Midwest was neither a burden, nor a shame. It was not something you had to explain or hide, or do any of the other things Midwesterners sometimes do when they leave their Midwestern homes behind. Through her example, she helped me understand that the roots that some people choose to dismiss or deny (usually under pressure of a surrounding atmosphere in which the Midwest is hardly seen as a place of general interest and admiration) were, or at least could be, a source of strength. For me that strength was crucial, an essential resource that helped me in becoming the adult me I wanted to be–while retaining the essential me that has always been.
My friend is from South Dakota, and she kept a map of her home state on the wall of her office in New York. That was something I had never thought of doing, but pretty soon I had put a map of Minnesota on a wall in my home, and marked certain special places on it. Inexplicably, it made me feel good–more relaxed, happier–every time I looked at it. Sometimes I would reach out and touch it as I hurried past, as if it had some talismanic power. I think maybe it did.
I’m no longer living in New York and I’m not back in Minnesota either, though I have spent enough time there over the years that it still feels like home, one of the three places in the world where I feel happiest and most comfortable.
For more years than I care to think about I have been working on a memoir called “A Long Way from Iowa.” Iowa, because that is where my grandmother was from, and that is where my story (in a way) begins.
It has been hard to find the time to work on this book for a host of reasons. But I have been steadily plugging away at it, as I can. I’ve recently returned to it and am filling it out and figuring out which parts of the story are still missing. It is work that I love more than I can say.
So I thought maybe it was time for my blog to have a place for writing about the Midwest. Just to be ready for whatever comes next.
Janet Hulstrand is a writer, editor, writing coach, and teacher of writing and literature based in Silver Spring, Maryland. Each summer she teaches a literature course in Paris, for Queens College, CUNY (“Paris: A Literary Adventure“). She also teaches culture and literature courses at Politics & Prose bookstore in Washington D.C.
“For me, the promised land, always seeming just beyond my reach, is the poetic masterpiece, that perfect union of words in cadence, each beckoned and shined and breathed into place, each moving in well-tried harmony of tone and texture and meaning with its neighbors, molding an almost living being so faithful to observable truth, so expressive of the mass of humanity, and so aglow with the beauty of just proportions that the reader feels a chill in his legs or a catch in his throat.” James A. Emanuel, in “The Force and the Reckoning”
Read the above passage slowly, please. Then read it again. This is what poetry is all about.
And a poetic masterpiece is what opened the door to my friendship with James Emanuel. (Though I know that he, with his incredibly high standards, may not have believed that he had written a true masterpiece yet.)
It was 1999, and I was looking for a currently living, currently working American writer in Paris, someone to balance the picture of American expatriates in Paris for my students, to disabuse them of the notion that Paris as a place of refuge and artistic nourishment for American artists had ended with the “lost generation.” I knew there had to be American writers still living and working in Paris, I just didn’t know who they were or how to find them.
Odile Hellier helped. She told me about James Emanuel, among other American writers living and working in Paris. I took down his name, and when I was back in Brooklyn I went to the library and found a copy of Whole Grain, a collection of his poems. I took it home, sat down on my stoop, and started to read. Before long I came across a poem that stunned me with its force, a poem I felt with a visceral shock. “Oh my god, this is a great poet,” I thought. I determined right then and there I would try to see if I could get him to read his poems to my students when I was in Paris the following summer.
The next summer he did indeed come and read to my students. He was so wonderful, not only such a wonderful poet, but such a warm and wonderful human being, so good with my students and so clearly delighted to be with them, that after that first time, I promised myself that for as long as he wanted to do this, I would ask him every year. And for the next 13 years he met with my class nearly every year, only missing a couple of times, when health concerns prevented him.
That was the beginning of what turned, slowly and gradually, from a friendly, ongoing professional relationship into a precious friendship as well. He was a highly intelligent, deeply wise and compassionate human being with a wonderful sense of humor. The tragedy he had experienced in his life had left its mark on him, but it had not made him bitter. One of the most impressive things about him was that he was able to bear that tragedy without ever succumbing to bitterness. That, and his ability to laugh, genuine, deep, joyful laughter, without ever denying the burden of the tragedy–nor, I believe, ever being free of it entirely, not even for a moment.
James loved children. This is clear enough from his poetry, but it could also be seen in the way he enjoyed being with my children. He delighted in the little things: I remember how he laughed when I told him, one rainy summer in Paris, that our boys, then aged 5 and 7, were fine, “But they’re getting frustrated when we go out, because they always want to hold the umbrella.”
A few years ago, my son Sammy and I visited him in the hospital, where he was recuperating from something. (He never dwelt on anything as mundane as his own health, so we actually never learned why he was there. He was just there, “getting better.”) We had a nice conversation about this and that. At one point Sammy was telling James how frustrating it was to have French people dismiss his ability to follow conversations (“Bah, il comprend rien,” he mimicked, with a pretty good imitation of a Gallic shrug, and a disdainful toss of the head.) “He’s got the inflection down just right,” James said, chuckling sympathetically.
But he also shared with them, in a most serious and profound way, the most important thing he had to offer: the gifts of poetry, and of true friendship. When Sammy was in third grade he he had done a report on Langston Hughes. I thought James would enjoy it so I sent him a photocopy. He responded by writing a poem “For Sammy, at 8.” To me it is of a piece with poems like “Wishes for Alix” and “Daniel Is Six.” Sammy and I both treasure that poem, and we always will.
Then, when Sammy was 15 he wrote a poem I was proud of, and I sent that to James too. This time he responded by returning the poem to Sammy, with appreciative remarks and a few editorial suggestions. (Much like James had done in similar circumstances, Sammy acknowledged the validity of some of his suggestions, and rejected others.)
My friend James Emanuel died, in Paris, on September 28 of this year. He was 92 years old, and his health was beginning to decline. So I could not be surprised by this news, but of course I was saddened by it. I wish he had lived a little bit longer, long enough to enjoy the pleasure of receiving more of the accolades that he and his poetry deserve, and that will surely be forthcoming. It was beginning to happen: he was invited to read his poetry at the American Embassy in Paris last summer. And though he has always had his admirers in the world of poetry–people like Gwendolyn Brooks and Langston Hughes among them–there should have been much more of that kind of thing in his life than there was.
In a conversation we had last summer, I was talking about how as you get older, it is annoying that so many times you can’t remember, of this famous person, or that, whether or not they are still alive. “I guess in a way it doesn’t matter,” I said. “It’s not so important whether or not they are still alive. What matters is what they did.”
James nodded his head in an approving way he had that always made me feel pleased I had said something he appreciated.
I wouldn’t go as far as to say that it doesn’t really matter that he’s no longer with us–for those who were closest to him, of course it does matter, a great deal. His friends and family will miss him, so much.
But his work is still with us, and that is more important than the sadness of his passing. If you haven’t had the chance to read his work yet, I hope you will. It is quite a gift to all of us that he left behind.
Janet Hulstrand is a writer, editor, writing coach, and teacher of writing and literature based in Silver Spring, Maryland. Each summer she teaches a literature course in Paris, for Queens College, CUNY (“Paris: A Literary Adventure”). She also teaches culture and literature courses at Politics & Prose bookstore in Washington D.C. You can learn more about James A. Emanuel in this tribute to him, as well as other articles published by France Revisited and on this blog.
A few of my favorite quotes about one of my favorite places in the world…more to come…
An idiosyncractic, beginning list of titles of books written (mostly in English) about France, or that take place in France (outside of Paris.) For books about Paris, see my Paris Bookshelf.