Literary deceptions, caricature, and a writer vs. an empire: newsletter, Dec. 14, 2018

December 17, 2018 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: books, fiction, journalism, Women writers and journalists, writers, writing.

This newsletter was sent to all of the subscribers on Jim’s list (2,967) on Friday, Dec. 7, 2018.



Literary deceptions and caricatures (again) — those are the items we focus on in this week’s newsletter. But there more, too.

When is it okay for an author to deceive readers? We have two instances this week in which the authors hid their identities from the audience. One of them took great pains to do it; the other, more or less, hid in plain sight. I thought I had this clear in my mind, but the more I looked into it, the more confusing it got. This week’s newsletter gives you a first glance at what I found.

While I am thinking about it, I want to say thanks to all of you newsletter readers who have stuck with me through the year — particularly those who have written to me. You have made 2018 a truly great year for me, and I appreciate it very much.

Thanks for reading. Have a great weekend.

Under the newsletter’s hood: Last week’s newsletter was sent to 2,977 subscribers and had a 30.5 percent open rate; 10 people unsubscribed.

Important: Remember to open the images or click on one of the links so that my email service will record your engagement and you will stay active on the list. Thanks.

Louisa May Alcott, stealth novelist of the blood and thunder genre

Louisa May Alcott lived a double-literary life.

The world knew her as Louisa May Alcott, author of Little Women and other widely popular and deeply-loved books that have been read by children for generations. These she called “moral pap” and said she wrote them only for the money.

An extremely small circle of people knew her as A.M. Barnard, author of what she termed “blood and thunder” sensational novels, the kind she wanted to write for all of her writing career. She was ashamed of these novels and worked to keep her connection with them a secret.

That secret held for nearly 90 years after death in 1888.

In the mid 1970s, while helping Madeleine Stern research a biography of Alcott, Leona Rostenberg discovered a large, unknown cache of papers at the Houghton Library at Harvard University that indicated that Alcott had written works no one knew about. They included Behind a Mask and A Long Fatal Love Chasenovels that featured strong, independent women and lavish, involved plots. Behind a Mask was published in serial form in 1866, two years before Little Women.

These were the kind of novels that Jo, her fictional alter ego, wrote in Little Women.

The success of Little Women turned Alcott away from writing sensation novels, and she never acknowledged the authorship of these blood-and-thunder works. In fact, she destroyed many of the letters that tied her to these books and asked others to do so as well.

But these books give us a valuable insight into this highly important and interesting literary personage.


Many biographies of Louisa May Alcott exist. An exceptionally readable one is by Susan Cheever, Louisa May Alcott: A Personal Biography, published in 2010.

Louisa May Alcott, journalist, previously on


The Education of Little Tree – heartwarming tale or major league hoax?

It’s a heartwarming tale: a small Cherokee boy is raised by his aging grandparents and taught to love the land and be tolerant of others. It is “the way” of the Cherokee tribe, and the writing is simple, ironic, and at times hilarious.

The Education of Little Tree was written not by a person raised by the Cherokees in the mountains of East Tennessee but by a Ku Klux Klansman and former speechwriter for George Wallace when he was running his racist campaign for governor of Alabama in the early 1960s.

Despite the full knowledge of its author and background, The Education of Little Tree by Forrest Carter (aka Asa Carter in his Alabama days) is still read and discussed in high school literature classes across the nation.

This American Life, the excellent public radio show produced in Chicago, has a compelling 35-plus minute podcast 180 Degrees – This American Life ) that takes a deep dive into the fascinating story of this book and its author. Here’s how the folks there describe it.:

Alex Blumberg takes us to an American classroom where students are reading a classic, The Education of Little Tree, by Forrest Carter. The book is marketed as a simple homespun autobiography of a Cherokee orphan. But public radio documentarian Joe Richman explains that the book is not at all what it seems. The origins of the heartwarming tale of respect for nature and tolerance, are actually filled with hatred, racism and lies.

Can a piece of art — literature, painting, whatever — stand apart from its creator? The question is a haunting one, and there’s no easy answer. It’s something we’ll explore in future posts.

If you’re interested in the topic, take a look at this article on literary hoaxes published recently in the New Yorker: Literary Hoaxes and the Ethics of Authorship | The New Yorker

The Prolific Reader. Kill the Quarterback is listed there along with some other great mysteries.”


Saul Bellow, a jerk and a determinedly great writer

Saul Bellow is one of the giants of 20th century American literature — a writer of the first order who could mesmerize the reader with his prose. Yet personally, he could be — and often was — a jerk, demanding, demeaning, and thoroughly foul-tempered.

What’s a biographer to do?

The answer comes from Zachery Leader, who has just published the second of a two-volume biography, this one cover the last 40 years of Bellow’s life. Leader, according to New York Times reviewer and English professor Mark Grief, not just covers Bellow’s life but manages to make him, somewhat, sympathetic.


The vein that successfully keeps one focused on Bellow, and enchanted, is the novelist’s excerpted prose. It knocks you back on your heels. Not just in the novels and stories, but in letters to every sort of addressee, from intimates, to fans, to politicians, Bellow’s prose is electric. Was Saul Bellow a Man or a Jerk? Both, a Monumental Biography Concludes – The New York Times

Greif describes one of the elements that made Bellow a great writer:

I have always found Bellow’s artfulness to cloy over the length of his longest novels. He made himself a fiction writer by force of mind, hard work and sheer will, plus study of the greats. He remained a lifelong student of the highest caliber: co-teaching with philosophers, metabolizing esoteric doctrines, even directing the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago.

Read the review, read the biography if you’re interested, but by all means read Bellow if you have never done so. Read his words and sentences and find out what Grief is talking about.


Kim Jung Hi, an amazing performance artist

If you don’t know about this guy or have never seen him in action, you should probably take a few minutes to watch. (Click on the photo, and it will take you to the video on YouTube.)

His name is Kim Jung Hi, and he is famous in the art world for his drawing performances. That’s right, performances. In front of an audience, he produces large, highly detailed, realistic drawings using nothing but his pen and brush. He has no sketchbook in front of him, no reference photos, and no plan.

It’s stream-of-consciousness drawing. Its accuracy and precision are astonishing.

The video is produced by online art teacher Stan Prokopenko and includes an interview with Kim Jun Hi.


The writer vs. the empire: who wins?

Alexander Solzhenitsyn, during the 1970s, was a hero in the West because as a Russian writer, he chose to stand against the Soviet empire and expose its corruption and inhumanity.

His weapon was a short novel titled A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, which recounted the experiences of a Russian man sentenced to a Soviet labor camp — something that Solzhenitsyn himself had undergone.

The novel was smuggled out of the Soviet Union and published in the West. It became wildly popular and Solzhenitsyn became a household name. It rang so true and was so damning that Communist regimes never again mustered any moral standing in the world.

The writer was expelled from the Soviet Union in 1974 and stripped of his citizenship. He settled in America and continued his writing. His novels sold widely and his voice remained powerful, but his influence waned, particularly after he criticized American society.

When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Solzhenitsyn was vindicated in his criticisms, and three years later he returned to his native land as a hero. But he didn’t seem any better satisfied with what Russian leaders were doing to democratize the nation than he had been with America. The country needed a strong leader, one who could maintain order, support the Church, and return the nation to its traditional values.

He thus welcomed the rise of Vladimir Putin and accepted the honors Putin offered him in 2007. He died the next year at the age of 89.

Because the centenary of his birth occurred this week, Michael Scammell, his biography, has written a piece about him in the New York Times. Scammell gives Solzhenitsyn a great deal of credit for the ultimate downfall of the Communist regime — credit he undoubtedly deserves.

He risked his all to drive a stake through the heart of Soviet communism and did more than any other single human being to undermine its credibility and bring the Soviet state to its knees. Source: Opinion | The Writer Who Destroyed an Empire – The New York Times

Solzhenitsyn’s battle with the Soviets shows the strength of writing against a political power. Words and ideas have moral force when they are correct, and they cannot be killed.


Recently on

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Female writers, #MeToo, and the love for Raymond Chandler 

American Fire and Bad Blood: two excellent pieces of journalism



Vince V.: Many years ago I worked with a brilliant caricaturist in Memphis. He said the secret of the art was to pick one — and only one — feature of the subject and emphasize that. He said if you enhanced several different features from the person, it would only be confusing to the viewer. He also said that caricature artists too often fed off of each other instead of sticking with the subject. For instance, he said, Nixon’s upturned nose actually had no basis in reality but eventually became the signature of the man because so many used it as a signature.

Finally . . .

This week’s drawing (pen and ink):  Saul Bellow (caricature)

Best quote of the week:

 That is happiness; to be dissolved into something complete and great. Willa Cather, novelist  (1873-1947)

Helping those in need

Fires in California, hurricanes on the Atlantic Coast — disasters occur everywhere. They have spread untold misery and disruption. The people affected by them need our help.

It’s not complicated. Things happen to people, and we should be ready to do all the good we can in all of the ways we can. (Some will recognize that I am paraphrasing John Wesley here).

When is the last time you gave to your favorite charity? The United Methodist Committee on Relief ( is my favorite charity. Please make a contribution to this one or to yours.

Keep reading, keep writing (especially to me), and have a great weekend.


Jim Stovall

You can connect with Jim on FacebookTwitterLinkedin, and BookBub.

His Amazon author page is where you can find more information about his books.

Last week’s newsletter: Joseph Priestly’s big writing idea, a winter’s read recommendation, and radio drama from the BBC: newsletter, Dec. 7, 2018



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