Ripening by Meridel Le Sueur: A woman who sympathizes with the labor movement, but is an outsider to it, gets involved in a big strike, and describes it from the inside. There's a remarkable blend of planning and organic group activity (very much an endorsement of collectivism as celebrated in classic Soviet films such as Eisenstein's October, which disdained stars and central characters in favor of heroic crowds). The way the strikers operate as a self-sufficient collective deserves scrutiny from protestors today.
The Woman Rebel by Margaret Sanger: Sanger founded Planned Parenthood, and her newsletters about abortion and such kept getting her in legal trouble. In these excerpts from her newsletter she offers, as a nurse, a stentorian rebuke to "quacks" who keep women from knowing how to prevent conception, and she invokes the fighting spirit of women who don't wish to be in bondage to men who use womens' reproductive systems as shackles.
Thelma & Louise by Callie Khouri: An excerpt from the script of this film. It's the last scene. You know the one. One thing that's intriguing to me is that Khouri isn't at all florid;
"A cloud of dust blows through the frame as the speeding car sails over the edge of the cliff."
SCUM Manifesto by Valerie Solanis: I knew about her entirely through the film "I Shot Andy Warhol," but I was surprised to find that her manifesto reads as much like a BDSM fantasy about humiliating and degrading men as it does a protest against patriarchy.
"The few remaining men can exist out their puny days dropped out on drugs or strutting around in drag or passively watching the high-powered female in action, fulfilling themselves as spectators, vicarious livers, or breeding in the cow pasture with the toadies, or they can go off to the nearest friendly suicide center where they will be quietly, quickly, and painlessly gassed to death."
Where do I sign up?
A lot of the manifesto's rhetoric could be repurposed to any other variety of extremist hate speech with a little find/replace action, much as the Protocols of the Elders of Zion was a satire on Napoleon before someone rewrote it as an anti-Semitic hoax. Anyway, after the manifesto there's a biographical sketch of Solanis by one Freddie Baer which strongly suggests that her attempted murder of Warhol (and also her publisher, Maurice Girodias of Grove Press) had less to do with militant misandry than with impoverished frustration over getting underpaid and ripped off all the time.
The Illegal Days by Grace Paley: Paley tells us about the days when abortion was illegal and birth control was pretty much only available to married women. She gives a sense of how women talked with each other about these issues, and what it was like to participate in the abortion underground. She admonishes the control-freak hypocrisy of the anti-abortion movement by letting us see how stymied and stifled women were before Roe V. Wade.
Living My Life by Emma Goldman: Legendary Leftist leader Goldman tells us about a prison stint which she describes as a crucible in which she was tested. The force and nuance of her principles are inspiring. She's 100% anti-religion, yet she befriends nuns and a priest, and calls a priest for a dying woman who wants last rites. She also tells us all about the basically unregulated nature of prison; no one's watching the watchmen, and the wards throw their weight around in abusive ways. My, how times have changed.
Intercourse by Andrea Dworkin: All I (thought I) knew about Dworkin was that she thought all heterosexual intercourse was rape, so I put her in the same drawer as Solanis, but this excerpt gives me a powerful new respect for Dworkin's incisive critique of patriarchy. In this piece she examines Joan of Arc as a woman whose virginity is a means of short-circuiting the idea of female identity as a choice between "sexual accessibility to men or withdrawal from the world..." She doesn't bring up Joan's cohort Gilles de Rais, whose bond to Joan is a fascinating study in contrasts, but she makes a powerful case for violating the terms of patriarchy as a means to female self-definition.
The Birth of Feminism by Guerrilla Girls: A mock-up of a movie poster for a Tinseltown treatment of the feminist movement as it might have been made in the 90s. Check it out.
From Dangerous Visions:
The Doll House by James Cross: If I were Anthony Lane, film critic for the New Yorker, my first paragraph about this story would be a cascade of erudite dad jokes about Ibsen. Anyway, this is about a financially overextended guy who obtains a doll house with a tiny oracle inside (had the author seen Edward Albee's Tiny Alice, which also features a tiny woman in a doll house?) and tries to get her to help him make $$$. It's a classic tale of wishes gone wrong, but Mr. Cross does a sharp job of putting us in the scene, building investment in the character's predicament and establishing enough verisimilitude that the fantasy elements exist in a grounded world. Half a century later, the financial predicament still seems like it could very easily be your problem, if it isn't already.
Sex and/or Mr. Morrison by Carol Emshwiller: A woman is fascinated by a neighbor, Mr. Morrison, whose large male body contrasts with her small female one. She develops an affectionate stalker relationship to him, infiltrating his apartment and snooping all over the joint, as well as hiding like a cat. She's an odd one, who seems to move through life in illogical, creepy (in several senses) ways.
The story plays on a science fiction idea that I find particularly chilling and resonant, the idea of the extraterrestrial living as a human, in a double fashion. The narrator's poetically outsiderish viewpoint presents both her behavior and Mr. Morrison's (to her) fascinating body as potentially non-human in the normal sense, without actually tipping over into "real" science fiction. Another slipstream precursor.
Check out this amazing 5 minute film by her husband Ed (who was also a science fiction illustrator) for a companion piece. It also defamiliarizes the body and the world around us in artful fashion. I like Lynch as much as the next geek, but please don't call it "Lynchian," it predates Lynch by decades. Thank you.
From Calling the Wind:
Has Anybody Seen Miss Dora Dean? by Ann Petry: On a pleasant evening, the narrator receives a phone call informing her that her long-time acquaintance, Sarah Forbes, is dying, and demands that the narrator come visit in order to accept a bequeathment before death comes. Those dishes serve as the Rosebud from which unspools the mysterious and lively story of Sarah and her husband, a perfect butler and imperfect husband who ended his own life in sordid, unexpected fashion. Sarah's complex life, from spirited party girl to domineering matriarch, is interesting enough in itself, and the resolution of the mystery seems surprisingly modern for 1958. It's one of those situations when a contemporary reader (at least this one) is surprised that people wrote about such things with any sensitivity back then.
It's also one of the most entertaining and suspenseful stories I've read in this whole project, and I'm hungry to read more by Ann Petry.
Mother Dear and Daddy by Junius Edwards: a clutch of put-upon siblings are awakened one night by mysterious visitors. This short melodrama rips into the internalized racism of light-skinned vs. dark-skinned prejudice with heartbreaking force. It also reminds me of something I'd forgotten; in childhood, intense emotions tend to become entangled with whatever is in front of you (a house, a car, an adult) so that whatever's filling your sight and whatever's filling your heart get fused in a perplexing and powerful fashion.
Also, this could be the beginning of an African-American Flowers in the Attic. Some enterprising writer should run with that.. Send me a copy!
From Best American Short Stories:
The Resemblance Between a Violin Case and a Coffin by Tennessee Williams: a young boy (let's call him Tennessee) and his sister are best friends, until one day she undergoes a mysterious change (probably menstruation, although we're never told and the family treats it like a solemn Bene Gesserit rite of passage) and separates from him. She is a competent student pianist, and is scheduled to play a duet with a boy named Richard at an upcoming recital. Richard is handsome to the point of perfection, and he makes her so nervous that her chops turn to trash whenever she plays with him. Meanwhile, l'il Tennessee spies on them, and falls in love with the boy himself.
Williams doesn't write this as a script in prose form the way one might have expected; it's very interior, and the paragraphs are thick and long. Of course, his scripts often have a frustrated prosesmith quality, so maybe its not surprising that he'd go full Henry James given the opportunity. Anyway, it's impressive that he wrote about his own homosexuality as unashamedly as he did; his rhapsodies over his first crush aren't bashful at all.
The Country Husband by John Cheever: Cheever gives us a story about a suburban husband and father whose life is superficially the 50s ideal, but there are harbingers early on that chaos reigns. First, his flight almost crashes and has an emergency landing. Then, no one will listen to his account of the nearly fatal emergency. His family's deftly choreographed squabbling put me in mind of those UPA animations like Gerald McBoingboing or Mr Magoo from the same era as this story, and that's not a bad way to visualize Cheever's world generally.
Our protagonist has a passing encounter with a maid whom he saw get shamed and degraded a decade before when he was a soldier in Europe; she was publicly shaved and stripped for having an affair with a Nazi soldier. She doesn't return to the story, but this warning about the consequences of illicit love sets the stage for what happens next; our protagonist is smitten by a young babysitter.
The story of his terrible behavior from there is a complex tragicomedy. The narrative is as stuffed with walk-on characters as an episode of Fibber McGee and Molly, each of whom reveals something about the sorrows and dissatisfaction which the camera-ready neighborhood contains and conceals. (My favorite, a pretentious beatnik who turns out to be the babysitter's fiance, manages both to be correct and insufferable, and I'd love to read more about him.) One of Cheever's specialties was to show the wheels coming off someone's American dream, a premise for which I have a bottomless appetite. Writers as distinct as Fay Weldon and Ramsey Campbell are his lovely descendants.