April 2023 Leisure Learning: Friends, Foes, & Infamy

by Melissa Haas
published in Reading

Merry April, all! I hope that by the time you read this, you have gotten a chance to experience the luxury of reading outside. (Made even more luxurious, at times, through the magic of antihistamines.)

This month’s column explores the spectrum of friends, enemies, frenemies, and simply odd relationships found within literature, both on and off the page. 

In the same vein, I ask you to consider your own relationships. What author or characters have informed your idea of friendship? What moments in your own life may represent either the start or end to a Platonic relationship? 

While you’re at it, take some time to consider relationships that many of us have, yet seem to go undocumented. 

Add these into a WIP or make a note for future projects. 

Should you need help getting started or simply want to explore secret worlds shared intimately between characters, the following is offered for fodder.

Here are your April 2023 Leisure Learning picks:

Great Literary Friendships by Janet Phillips

Frodo & Sam. Watson & Holmes. Harry, Hermione, & Ron. For many of us, the bonds between these characters have been instrumental in defining our entire concept of friendship. 

In the book Great Literary Friendships, Janet Phillips takes 24 partnerships from both contemporary and traditional classics out of their normal settings to focus solely on this one aspect of characters relating to one another. 

The examples and their accompanying essays depict not only the warm, light-filled ties we usually associate with good buds, but also the contentious, complicated ones that can be found in great literature—as well as in life. Just what creates the alchemy between college mates in Donna Tartt’s The Secret History

Be prepared to explore the nature of teetering partnerships that may even feel uncomfortably close to home, now that you think about it. 

Great Literary Friendships boasts a beautiful, foil stamped cover, making it a wonderful gift to give to your BBF (best book friend). 

For writers, the book offers a multi-faceted view of how characters can function in tandem with each other to serve emotional context and/or plot. Regardless of one’s occupation, this book offers a look at the many ways people can intimately relate to each other on a mental (rather than physical) basis. As such, anyone who has ever had a friend or been a friend will find something to relate to in this worthwhile compilation. 

A Secret Sisterhood: The Literary Friendships of Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, George Eliot, and Virginia Woolf by Emily Midorikawa and Emma Claire Sweeney

Every author has that writer friend who “gets them.” This fellow author understands what the other is trying to say, but can pick out blindspots and plot holes otherwise unseen. Community is an idea heartily emphasized here at DIY MFA, and a writing partnership is one of the most important relationships an author can have. 

A Secret Sisterhood details some of the greatest friendships in literary history. Written by a pair of female author friends themselves, this volume provides tremendous insight into the women who helped develop the manuscripts we’ve come to know as masterpieces. 

Piecing together historical evidence, the reader is informed who Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, George Eliot, and Virginia Woolf hashed out their ideas with. These relationships unfold as complex and dynamic, lasting over decades, always staying true to telling each other what it is she needs to hear in the service of making the work better. 

Additionally, we are given a glimpse of these authors as they are just developing their styles and then get an idea of what continues to make them curious after they’ve made their mark. 

If I were teaching Women’s Lit or a class on Feminine Creative Writing, I would make A Secret Sisterhood required reading. Not only is it insightful, the level of scholarship on relationships that prove themselves to be almost as central as a marriage is quite notable.  

(**The audiobook version is available for free if you are a member of Audible.com.)

Legendary Literary Feuds (YouTube clip, 23 mins.)

When we’re introduced to someone as one of the Great Authors, we usually aren’t told about their real life behavior, save for the occasional background on drinking. 

Given that the pen is mightier than the sword, it is only reasonable to suggest that insults between authors can get pretty darn wicked. 

In this YouTube video, Oxford English Lit graduate Benjamin McEvoy counts down some of the most outrageous feuds one can find in the literary arts.

(SPOILER ALERT: If you’re wondering whether or not Hemingway made the list, the answer is “Ohhhhh, yeah.”)

For the Love of Books: Stories of Literary Lives, Banned Books, Author Feuds, Extraordinary Characters, and More by Graham Tarrant 

For the Love of Books is a light-hearted compendium of literary trivia that contains a variety of facts and stories about …well, stories…and the people who have become legendary for penning them. 

It offers a nice mix of Things You Can Bring Up At A Dinner Party in addition to providing background regarding how some of the world’s greatest authors got on with each other (e.g., Truman Capote and Harper Lee, Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald, the very public fallout between J.K. Rowling and Stephen King).  

For the Love of Books is sectioned into reads that take only a couple of minutes. As such, it’s a fine alternative to screen scrolling & perfect opportunity to use those few minutes here and there to enrich your literary life.   

Barnum’s Lost Museum (CUNY website and archives)

Impresario P.T. Barnum earned his place in history as “the greatest showman on Earth” by creating what may be thought of as America’s earliest, most successful Gawker page. Sometimes this was in the form of a traveling show; at other times, he worked on creating more permanent exhibits.

In 1841, Barnum scored a deal on the Scudder Museum’s acquisitions, combined them with his own and opened the controversial American Museum in the center of Manhattan’s Financial District. Its popularity at the time rivaled that of what Walt Disney World’s is now. Unfortunately, this attraction succumbed to its own spectacular fire in 1868, thereby making its re-creation go by the title of The Lost Museum. 

When I stumbled upon City University of New York’s (CUNY)’s efforts to preserve what they could of this endeavor, just like people back then, I couldn’t help but stop and look—and I urge you to, as well.  

Now, I’m not recommending The Lost Museum for its outrageous spectacles. In fact, the exploratory area has a rather Nancy Drew point and click quality. 

Still, I am recommending this joint collaboration between CUNY and the American Social History Project because of the rich source of archives that reveal the American mentality and practices around the time of the Civil War. Whether you’re interested in the etiquette of the time, want to look at the Bowery boys in their original context, find out what is meant by “Circassian beauty,“ or just want to see what you missed via the museum’s illustrated guide, this is the place to go.

Melissa Haas is the author and illustrator of Catula: The Misadventures of Dracula’s Cat and The Night Before Christmas (NOW WITH CATS), among others. Follow Catula’s whereabouts on Instagram @CatulaTheCat. If you’re interested in downloading free coloring pages or seeing Margaret Atwood with a blowtorch, check out more Leisure Learning related content at www.MelissaHaasCreates.com.

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