My reading lately has tended toward nonfiction. I especially enjoy personal memoirs and biographies of intriguing and somewhat lesser known individuals. My husband recommended Michael Morton’s memoir and I found it riveting. Called Getting Life: An Innocent Man’s 25-Year Journey from Prison to Peace, it is his account of his conviction for his wife’s murder and his long years in a Texas prison. He is a white man who finds himself surrounded by blacks in a tough and bleak environment; he had naively assumed (numbed by her sudden and horrific death) that he would never be a suspect. Due to politics, sloppy handling of his case and some illegal case work, he found himself imprisoned. How he deals with the endless tedium, loneliness, and inhumanity of the prison system speaks mightlily to his strong character.
Young black men in many parts of the U.S. face challenges and temptations that are beyond the ken of most of us. Somehow, I missed Jesmyn Ward’s memoir when it came out last year and only just discovered it in paperback. Men We Reaped is a haunting, painful and incisive portrait of five young men—poor and black with no real role models and few opportunities or support— all of whom died too young in the space of a few years. They were cousins, friends, and a brother of Ward’s. The combination of grinding poverty, no full-time parents, the easy availability of drugs, and little sense of self-worth made for hard
lives and early death. In chapters alternating with accounts of each man, Ward chronicles the turmoil of her childhood, how her perspective on her parents, particularly her mother is revised over time, and her own struggle to value herself as a worthwhile person. It’s amazing to me that Ward went on to success as a novelist (Salvage the Bones) and also returned to DeLisle to live. She is now a professor of creative writing.
Retreating to an earlier time, I’m finishing up Megan Marshall’s evocative biography of Margaret Fuller. Marshall previously wrote a biography of the Peabody sisters (19th century New England education reformers) which I read and enjoyed about 10 years ago. Getting deep into Fuller’s life, I am re-appreciating what she was able to accomplish as a woman in a very male world. She had been tutored and schooled by her father, a harsh taskmaster. So it is not surprising that her primary intellectual friends included the noted men of the day from Waldo Emerson to Nathaniel Hawthorne and Thoreau, as well as others whose names are less know to us today. She did have friendships with other women and she offered a series of Conversations in which they could enroll. These get-togethers seem to be the precursors of the women’s clubs–with names like Fortnightly, Roundabout, Current Events–that flourished late in the 19th and early 20th century and provided stimulation and brain food, as it were, for smart women who weren’t allowed professional jobs. Margaret with her coterie debated philosophy and other topics and she encouraged them to speak out and share their thoughts with one another.
What is also fascinating is how Fuller’s view of the plight of women (property of their husbands) and their potential for a greater place in society and a more equal role in marriage went so far beyond what any other American was proposing. The Dial and later the Herald Tribune, gave her platforms from which to expound; later the publication of Woman in the Nineteenth Century, an expansion of an earlier essay, increased her standing and brought her invitations to speak. She was a woman of big ideas and both voluble and forceful in conversation and in advocating her views. I imagine some of her female friends found her a bit too much “in your face.” Tragically, she died in a shipwreck at the age of only 40.