Sunday, September 25, 2022

Portrait of the Author as a Working Writer

Virginia Hamilton (1936–2002)
From Virginia Hamilton: Five Novels

Virginia Hamilton in the publicity photo distributed by Macmillan in 1967 for the publication of Zeely, her debut novel. (Barbara Goldberg/Macmillan)
When Virginia Hamilton was nine years old, she began writing “The Notebook,” which recorded secrets and gossip heard from family members, much of which she didn’t understand. The following year she experienced one of the worst tragedies that can befall a fledgling writer: she lost the manuscript. “By age eleven, I had turned grim with the loss and had started my first ‘Novel,’” she recounted years later. “I filled page after page with vehement prose under the hot summer sun while lying on a slant atop the burning tin roof of the hog barn.”

Her family in Yellow Springs, Ohio, particularly on her mother’s side, became fantastic source material for a young girl’s fervid imagination. Four decades later, when she became the first Black writer to receive the coveted Newbery Medal, she recounted in her acceptance speech several of those memories, including this one:
It was my favorite, immensely superstitious aunt who was the first among the Perrys to come in at the middle of Orson Welles’ alarmingly realistic radio version of H. G. Wells’ War of the Worlds. On that scary night of mists back in 1938, Aunt Leah terrified and aroused Perrys in three counties to limited action against invading Martians. Apparently my own immediate family of Hamiltons knew enough about Perrys to spend the next six hours sensibly in Grandpa Perry’s root cellar, while all of the male relatives and Aunt Leah searched the skies and shotgunned anything that moved.
Hamilton readily admitted to her audience that the tales of her youth might contain some “exaggerations,” because “they were told to me by other Perrys, and none of us is known to tell a story the same way twice.” Her biographer Julie K. Rubini explains that “her writings were a combination of memories and re-creations of all the elements that her family passed on verbally in stories.”

After graduating from high school at the top of her class, Hamilton enrolled in nearby Antioch College and later transferred to Ohio State University, in the hope of becoming a writer. One of her professors urged her to move to New York to pursue her career and so she left Ohio in 1958, found work as a museum receptionist, cost accountant, and nightclub singer, and struggled to find a publisher for her first novel. “I couldn’t get an agent for about five years,” she remembered, “and I couldn’t get an agent because I wasn’t published. It just went around and around. I couldn’t get published because I didn’t have an agent.”

She finally struck gold because of what she described as a “happy accident—the kind of luck that hits you if you hang around New York long enough.” Janet Schulman, one of her friends from college, had been hired to write ad copy at Macmillan Publishing. She remembered one of Hamilton’s undergraduate stories—“The West Field,” about a tall Black woman who resembles an African princess—and suggested to her that it would make a good children’s story. Schulman showed the story to Dick Jackson, a new associate editor at Macmillan, and in 1964 he agreed to help Hamilton flesh out the story into a novel for young readers. “Dick wrote me fabulous letters that would say, ‘Between this line and that line is a chapter,’” Hamilton recalled. When Jackson left his job at Macmillan in 1966, Schulman herself became Hamilton’s editor and saw the novel, Zeely, to print. Lavinia Russ, a reviewer at Publisher’s Weekly, called Jackson, who had begun working for another publisher, to find out more about the only “unknown” author on Macmillan’s list of forthcoming children’s books. His answer must have satisfied her curiosity because she reviewed the book, claiming it was “so exceptional that no one who reads it will ever call its writer unknown again.”

In 1971, Hamilton wrote “Portrait of the Author as a Working Writer,” an essay describing her time in New York, her development as an author of children’s stories, and her return to Ohio. At this point, she had published three books—Zeely, The House of Dies Drear, and The Time-Ago Tales of Jadhu. Her fourth book, The Planet of Junior Brown, was about to appear, and she was beginning work on the novel widely considered her masterpiece, M.C. Higgins, The Great. She had already won several awards (including an Edgar for The House of Dies Drear, a mystery novel) and she would eventually publish 41 books, which would earn her virtually every honor awarded to writers of children’s literature.

Notes: The Mies chair, also known as the Barcelona chair, was designed by architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. Whistler’s mother refers to an 1871 painting by American artist James McNeill Whistler, depicting his mother, Anna McNeill Whistler. The poem by Langston Hughes is “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” (1921), his first published poem, written when he was just seventeen. Hamilton’s description of the East Village of later years mentions its “hippy and head” population, the latter term referring to users of illegal drugs (acid head, pothead, hophead, etc.) and the many “head shops” selling drug paraphernalia that dotted the neighborhood. Founded in 1933 outside Asheville, North Carolina, Black Mountain College attracted a distinguished roster of teachers and students, including some of the nation’s leading avant-garde writers and visual artists, before closing in 1957. The quote by Carson McCullers is the opening line of her debut novel, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter (1940). Named after its small population of black bears, Bear Mountain is in the Hudson Highlands, some fifty miles north of Manhattan. The Ohio River was and is symbolic for Hamilton’s family and community as the border between the slave state of Kentucky and the free state of Ohio in the decades before the Civil War. “We wear the mask that grins and lies” is the opening line of the poem “We Wear the Mask” by Paul Laurence Dunbar. The unfaithful lover C. C. Rider, the fugitive from prison Long John, and the gunman Staggalee are three figures from traditional blues songs. A heroic figure in African American folklore, John Henry was a steel-driver so strong and fast that he boasted he could outperform a steam-powered drill. After winning the challenge, his heart gave out from the effort.

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