Thursday 3 March 2011

Guest Post: Rob Velella

Rob Velella as Nathaniel Hawthorne
Containing Multitudes is very proud to present a guest post from Rob Velella! Rob Velella is an independent literary historian and playwright specializing in American literature of the nineteenth century. As a scholar, Velella has published articles and presented academic papers on figures as varied as Rufus Griswold, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and Walt Whitman. He served as guest curator for "Margaret Fuller: Woman of the Nineteenth Century" at Harvard's Houghton Library and as research associate for "The Raven in the Frog Pond: Edgar Allan Poe and Boston" for the Boston Public Library. In addition to his dramatic presentations, he maintains the American Literary Blog, an "almost-daily celebration of important (and not-so-important) dates in 19th-century American literary history."

Here's Rob's post:

As a college student, I was once handed a four-page document listing literary works that every English major should know. One of the writers on that list was Edgar Allan Poe and soon my obsession with him began. I was lured in by his works of horror, the simple “bad-ass” vibe of “The Black Cat” or “The Tell-Tale Heart.” But, then I kept reading beyond those well-known stories. Soon, I relished Poe’s more obscure works like “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar” and “Berenice.” Then, I realized he also wrote humor works and laughed out loud at “X-ing a Paragrab” and “Never Bet the Devil Your Head.”
This appreciation, coupled with my formal study of literature, propelled me to other writers on the list. Right away, I realized there was a pattern in the works that I really enjoyed: 19th-century America. They were all major names, too: Emily Dickinson, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Washington Irving, Walt Whitman. But soon I realized that these “major names” were not so major outside the realm of literary scholarship. Though Walt Whitman wrote for the “average” American, average Americans were not reading him. In conversations with people outside the classroom, it became clear to me that readers weren’t reading the classics anymore. The usual reasons: too long, too wordy, too difficult. There is also an automatic stigma against anything assigned in a high school classroom. Maybe it was because I disagreed with those assumptions that I embarked on a mission to bring literature back to the masses.
Like Prometheus and the fire from Olympus, my goal was to rip great books and poems out of the hands of the literary elite and return it to the common people. 
Through tours of historic places, speaking engagements at libraries and historical societies, I would re-introduce these writers of the 19th century to America. I started a blog where I could write about major themes and popular movements in American writing. But would anyone listen?
At some point, I recognized that there was a disconnect between the audience and the literature. So, I removed a barrier and allowed those audiences to speak directly to the writers. Through simple costumes and a few trials and errors with hair spray (and even a little make-up), I became some of my favorite dead authors. In my first year, I performed as Edgar Allan Poe, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and even the obscure novelist George Lippard. 
The results have been uplifting.
When preparing my presentations, I start with the assumption that they can and will enjoy these works. Even though people know they should have an appreciation for these authors, the task of reading them seems daunting (too long, too wordy, too difficult, too boring). But if presented in a way that is more open, more accessible, they will relish these written words as much as I do. Moreover, I show that these authors all had interesting lives and were just as human as we are:  Longfellow suffers from depression and a lack of success in his early career; Poe struggles to make sufficient money to support himself and his wife; Hawthorne fights writer’s block and worries about the results of fame. Their stories are about ambition, varying degrees of success, and the human condition. All are relevant today.
When I first planned on taking this step of “becoming” some of my favorite writers, I visited Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Concord, Massachusetts. At the final resting place of Hawthorne, I laid a customary penny for him on his simple headstone. I do not necessarily believe in ghosts but I felt compelled to “tell him” about my plans. In a way, I was asking for permission. And the wind answered back, “No.” Well, I thought, I can’t imagine he would have said anything else. I knew right there how I would portray his personality.

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