Writing Seminars

fighting war vets

beating bullies and other meanies

Books of the Region

July 17, 2005|By James H. Bready | James H. Bready,Special to the Sun

How quiet, up here in the bell-tower room in Gilman Hall. Far below, maybe a few sunbathers on the grassy Beach, or bowl, of Johns Hopkins' Homewood campus. Across Charles Street, high in Wolman Hall (once the Cambridge Arms), see those four apartment windows? There, in 1935-1936, F. Scott Fitzgerald lived and wrote. Gilman's tower-room view of downtown is good too, but those who peer out raptly, in other seasons, or who slump around the big table, in three-hour critiques, are writers themselves -- grad students in the university's Writing Seminars. The chosen few.

Even in summer things happen. The other day, David Smith replaced Jean McGarry in the chairmanship (it now rotates among the five full professors). Her thing is fiction; his, poetry of the outdoors. The line of succession goes: Elliott Coleman (the founder, in 1947), Charles Newman, John T. Irwin, Mark Crispin Miller, McGarry, Smith. A doubtful pleasure, serving as chair, if colleagues with fewer burdens get to bring out more books.

Also, two years, not one, is now the master of fine arts degree requirement; with dissertation, plus reading skill in a foreign language.

Ahead, is resumption of the Hopkins Review -- the 1948-1953 national literary quarterly that perished during interdepartmental warfare. A sample New Series issue circulates, co-sponsored by Johns Hopkins University Press.

Come fall, a new set of word-workers will assemble: 10 fiction writers, eight poets, half a dozen science writers -- the cream of 200-plus applicants. A few more women than men. (The Writing Sems also shepherd 160 undergraduate majors.)

Some deal for the future MFAs -- full-tuition fellowships, plus teaching stipends. Your photo on a Gilman office wall. For those Gilman tower critiques, a second pressure-cooker -- a room with no windows at all. Stephen Dixon, Alice McDermott, Tristan Davies, Greg Williamson. And, meeting alumni / ae and former faculty as happen by. National Book Award types, these. John Barth, one day; Louise Erdrich, another; Richard Macksey, Garry Wills, Russell Baker, Rose Styron, Andrei Codrescu, Edna O'Brien, Wyatt Prunty, Rosemary Mahoney, Sidney Offit, John D. Rockefeller V. It amuses the office that some graduates prove reluctant to leave Baltimore.

On six Maryland campuses, graduate-writing programs flourish; nationally, more than 200 such programs. The idea originated in the 1930s, at the State University of Iowa, which still tops the merit ratings. No. 2 in such rankings nationally, Hopkins; always No. 2.

Among applicants, the knock is that acceptances come most readily in poetry and short stories -- the genres in which outside-world agents and publishers take least interest. The blockbuster novel? After one year's mentoring, or two, often it's still in the works. How do you become a trade-published author? Easy seldom does it. Some Homewood graduates veer into film scripts, or newswriting.

Irwin, newly elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters, sees the humanities gaining on that North Baltimore campus long typecast as scientific and managerial.

THE BONUS ARMY: AN AMERICAN EPIC

By Paul Dickson and Thomas B. Allen. Walker. 370 pages.

One of U.S. history's low points came in July 1932, in Washington, when President Hoover ordered the Army out to disperse several thousand hungry, shabby World War I veterans, converged there, many with families, pleading for a cash payment. The Great Depression had not just left them jobless, but reminded them of 1917-1918 -- when they faced machine guns overseas, mostly for $21 a month, while draft avoiders and profiteers were going about the good life back home. "Communists!" roared 1932's power and status people.

Earlier, Maryland had its National Guard truck the marchers from Cumberland to Washington; then, after the uniformed military (Douglas MacArthur, George S. Patton and an unhappy Dwight D. Eisenhower) had attacked the veterans' shantytowns with fixed bayonets, tear gas and incendiary torches, state of Maryland trucks awaited at the District line, to reload and head for the Pennsylvania line.

In 1936 (after four Franklin Roosevelt vetoes), the veterans were finally, quietly voted a benefit. Since then, Washington has been host to other, larger demonstrations. As Paul Dickson and Thomas Allen point out, 1932's appalling scene was a main factor behind New Deal passage of the GI Bill of Rights in 1944, which eased another war's veterans back into civilian life.

Altogether, The Bonus Army (and its thorough notes and appendices) is a model of clear-eyed history. The book never flinches, though you will. And, here and there, readers may speculate as to today's military, its eventual return from the Middle East, and its response to the riches that some U.S. civilians have meanwhile amassed.

BULLIES, TYRANTS AND IMPOSSIBLE PEOPLE: HOW TO BEAT THEM WITHOUT JOINING THEM

By Ronald M. Shapiro and Mark A. Jankowski, with James Dale. Crown. 277 pages.

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