The queen of pandemic literature, Motown’s founding father, Shakespeare online, and reader reaction: newsletter, April 24, 2020

April 26, 2020 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: books, newspapers.

This newsletter was sent to everyone on Jim’s email list (2,587) on Friday, April 24, 2020.



Before the pandemic hit, I had been planning a small display for our library on Motown in order to let patrons know about all of the Motown books that we have on the shelves. That idea, obviously, has been put on hold, but I have continued to do some research — one of the main sources being Gerald Posner’s excellent Motown: Music, Money, Sex, and Power. The result has been an inadvertent series, the third part of which appears this week.

Motown had a profound effect on American music beginning int he 1960s, and that effect continues. So far, we’ve covered Marvin Gaye, The Marvelettes, and Berry Gordy. That still leaves Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, the Temptations, the Supremes, and many others. Stay tuned. And if Motown means something to you, let me know. Some of you already have done so.

I fear that this pandemic will be like those horror movies — just when you thought it was safe to go outside . . . . So, take special care. Stay home and stay safe.

Under the newsletter’s hood: Last week’s newsletter was sent to 2,590 subscribers and had a 31.0 percent open rate; 4 persons 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.

Katherine Anne Porter and American pandemic literature

Katherine Anne Porter’s Pale Horse, Pale Rider is one of the books that many people are turning to in these days of the coronavirus pandemic. So, they should. It’s probably the best of America’s pandemic-related literature.

The autobiographical novel, set in the midst of the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic, features a heroine Miranda and her soldier lover Adam. Adam is about to be deployed, and the Miranda comes down with a serious case of the flu, one that almost kills her.

Miranda survives, as did Porter, but the ending is not a particularly happy one.

Michael Agresta, writing for the Texas Monthly:

Pale Horse, Pale Rider’s enduring reputation perhaps stems from Porter’s willingness to look death in the face through a masterfully psychedelic fever sequence set in an overcrowded hospital. Writing for the New Yorker in 1944, the critic Edmund Wilson lauded Porter as “a first-rate artist,” with a literary project both sophisticated and subtle that “may be able, as in Pale Horse, Pale Rider, to assert itself only in the delirium that lights up at the edge of death.” Source: The Seminal Novel About the 1918 Flu Pandemic Was Written by a Texan – Texas Monthly

Porter, the survivor of a difficult childhood in Texas, was writing for the Rocky Mountain News and living in Denver in 1918 when she was struck with the flu. She barely lived through it. It left her completely bald, and when her hair grew back, it was white — the color that it remained for the rest of her life.

Porter left Denver and went to New York City where she worked as an editor, writer, and ghostwriter, and she got involved in leftwing politics. For the next decade she traveled back and forth between New York City and Mexico, where she worked for a publisher and connected with the political movement of Diego Rivera. She was also part of the movement protesting the execution of anarchists Niccola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, two anarchists in the Boston area who were convicted in 1921 of a bombing and who died in the electric chair in 1927. One of her last works, The Never-Ending Wrong, published in 1977, was about that protest.

Porter published Flowering Judas, a collection of short stories, in 1930 and an expanded edition, Flowering Judas and Other Stories, in 1935. This second volume won her critical praise and established her as a top-tier member of American letters. Pale Horse, Pale Rider, a collection of three short novels, came out in 1939. Porter was noted for her clear, precise writing and disciplined style. Despite the critical acclaim these and other works received, they did not bring her financial stability. Nor did her four marriages, each of which ended in divorce.

During the 1940s and 1950s, Porter wrote articles and commentaries, received grants, traveled widely, and taught at various universities and a visiting lecturer. In 1962, she published her only full-length novel, Ship of Fools, which was both a financial and critical success. The book was made into a movie directed by Stanley Kramer and was the final screen appearance of Vivian Leigh. 

Porter won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award in 1966 for her volume The Collected Short Stories of Katherine Anne Porter.

Porter died in 1980 at the age of 90 in Silver Spring, Maryland.

The state of the bees: making honey

The bees are now well into their first month on the farm. There should be a population explosion inside the hives by the weekend because the first eggs that the queen has laid will be coming out of their cells as brand new worker bees. Eggs take 21 days to develop and hatch.

Outside the hives, the fields are full of crimson clover blooms, something that is not only a fantastic sight for humans but is like a five-course meal for bees. Honeybees make honey by gathering nectar from flowers, but they don’t use every bloom in the garden. Many flowers are constructed so that the nectar is too difficult for the bees to find and extract. Therefore, bees will bypass many flowers and blooms and go to where they can easily get the nectar. Crimson clover is one such plant, and the blooming season is at its peak.

Several years ago, I made a video about the bees’ honey-making process — how they gather nectar from flowers, process that nectar, store it in the cells of the hive, and continue to process it until it becomes the honey that we love. Here’s the link to that video:

The blooming season for bees lasts for the next two months, through May and June. Toward the end of June, we will look inside the hives to see how well the bees have done at their honey-making tasks.

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

Berry Gordy began Motown with an $800 loan from his family

Not quite 30 years old in 1959, Berry Gordy needed money.

Gordy was from a solid, hard-working African-American family in Detroit —  a family that emphasized discipline and education — but Berry, the seventh of eight children, had not accomplished much in his first three decades. He had been in the Army, which he didn’t like. He had had various jobs, but Berry didn’t care for labor very much. He had tried to make it as a professional boxer, but that turned out to be not his thing. His wife was divorcing him, and he was fearful of losing contact with his children

What he liked was music, and Detroit’s active musical scene was the place he wanted to be. He thought of himself as a songwriter, but the more he learned about how things worked, the more he envisioned himself as a producer. He had an idea for producing records, but he needed money. About a $1,000 would do, he thought. He didn’t have any money, and his friends were unable or unwilling to part with theirs.

After exhausting every other resource, he turned to his family. The Gordy family was not rich, but it had a fund to which every working member was required to contribute $10 a week. The main purpose of the fund was to buy real estate if they needed it; it was not meant to finance wild-brained ideas like producing a record album.

Still, with the family sitting around the dining table one evening, Berry made his pitch for $800 and was hammered with questions, especially from his sister Esther. What had he ever done? What success had he ever had? How was he going to pay the money back? Two other sisters, Gwen and Anna, said they were for giving him the money. A third sister, Loucye, agreed. Esther held out.

Their mother and father, Barbara and Berry Sr., sat in silence. When the children looked at them, they nodded. That left Esther as the lone holdout, and the vote had to be unanimous. Okay, she said, but the first money Berry made had to go toward repaying the fund.

Gordy got his money, but he also learned something valuable. “I knew right then,” he wrote later, “if I ever made money, she (Esther) would be the one I’d get to watch it for me.”

Make money he certainly did. It wasn’t an easy road, but Gordy took his family’s money and turned it into Motown Records. He found and developed talent among Detroit’s African-American community, and as Motown’s reputation grew, musicians from all over the country migrated to Detroit. Gordy was convinced that the strict segregation that had heretofore ruled popular music — there was black music and there was white music — could be overcome. He wanted to sell black artists to white audiences.

Gordy did that by not only controlling the music but also the appearance, dress, and choreography of the artists whose records he produced and promoted. In doing so, Motown Records became and remained the richest black-owned business in America for several decades. Gordy went on to a wide-ranging career that included not only records but also television and movie productions. By 2000 he had divested most of his interests in Motown Records and its progenies.

In 2016, Gordy was awarded the National Medal of Arts by President Barack Obama. Gordy is currently 90 years old.

See these previous posts about Motown:

Fifty years ago, Marvin Gaye asked What’s Going On?

Please, Mr. Postman

Looking for a Shakespeare fix; try The Show Must Go Online

Like baseball for some of us, Shakespeare in the open air is a summer ritual. Attending a Shakespeare festival — and there are dozens — is a good habit to develop.

But like baseball, every Shakespeare festival on the planet has been shut down. (I’m guessing here, but I’m pretty sure I’m right.)

So, what’s a deprived Shakespeare fan to do? Go online, of course.

And to the rescue is Robert Myles, an actor-director who loves Shakespeare who has come up with an innovative way to present the Bard using actors from around the world and the Zoom conferencing software. One of the actors involved in these productions is Stephan Moss, a feature writer for The Guardian, who wrote a piece about it for his organization:

The enterprising director is Robert Myles, whose response to the lockdown has been to set about mounting the entire Shakespearean canon in chronological order, livestreaming a play a week on YouTube under the banner of The Show Must Go Online. He’d done two already – The Two Gentlemen of Verona and The Taming of the Shrew – but this was to be the first history. Whether it would make history was another matter. Source: Bard from my own home: how I starred in a virtual Shakespeare play | Stage | The Guardian

These plays are a lot of fun to watch, and the first productions are of plays you would not normally see, such as Henry VI Part 1. The technical wizardry and glitches are the first things you might notice, but if you keep watching, the words of the poet begin to come through, and you can have a great Shakespeare experience.

It’s not quite like sitting in a park on a warm summer’s evening, but it helps in these times of isolation. All of the productions — there’s a new one every week — are on YouTube here:

Now, if they could just figure out how to do baseball online. I’m sure someone is working on it.


BFP (Big Freakin’ Party) celebrating the birthday (April 23, or one of these days in late April) of Bill Shakespeare this week! A good time was had by all. You missed it?

No worries. Here’s a quote:

But man, proud man,

Drest in a little brief authority,

Most ignorant of what he’s most assured,

His glassy essence, like an angry ape,

Plays such fantastic tricks before high heaven

As make the angels weep. 

Measure for Measure, Act II, scene 2


Check out last week’s newsletter

L.K.C.: Oh, my… Mort Ducker!!! Oh for a humorist with the sharpness of his quill.

His Mad Msg and the Bullwinkle shows were the finest humor of their age.  It is a shame that following generations have had such trouble developing humanists as skilled in the art form of the satirical piece.

Carolyn M.: I loved this quote from Daniel J. Levitin: “And experiencing new things is the best way to keep the mind young, pliable and growing — into our 80s, 90s and beyond. ” See the post: Talking ourselves – and others – into the ‘inevitable’ infirmities of old age

Jennifer S.: I wanted to note how much I enjoyed, in particular, the bit on “Please, Mr. Postman” — as a purveyor of pub trivia, including monthly music trivia quizzes (back in the days when such things were permissible and advisable), I loved learning more about the story behind this classic song. But I also found it to be especially important and poignant given all the recent talk about possible governmental threats to our U.S. Postal Service. May this song remind us of the value of the postal service, not just to our popular culture, but to our daily lives!

Freida M.: Thanks for the quote from Viktor Frankl; so appropriate for what we’re in the midst of currently.  Good God (rather than good luck) for you and the other beekeepers!

Kitty G.: I enjoyed watching the bee inspection and the music. Also the article on the Motown music that I grew up with and still enjoy. I am 71 and can still dance to it although, I can’t last as long as I used to due to heart and lung issues.  Stay well and stay blessed.

Bill G.: I really enjoyed the article (about talking ourselves into getting old).  I am guilty of attributing stumbles and forgetfulness to old age.  The worst is that we have throw rugs in the kitchen.  They never used to bother me, but now it seems like every time I walk through the kitchen, my toe catches on a rug and flip up the corner.  I suspect the arthritis in my knees is causing me to shuffle instead of walk.

Part of the reason this bothers me is that next week I will turn 70. Most ages haven’t bothered me, but as I stare down 70, I can’t help remembering that all four of my grandparents died in their 60’s of old age.  Of course, none of them took blood pressure medicine. None of them took water pills, (so none of them spent as much time in the bathroom as I do.) 
The bottom line is that I have to stop thinking about my grandparents and focus on my mother, who lived to 93. Anyway, I enjoyed the idea of not blaming everything on age.

Eric S.:  Not sure if it was intentional but your beekeeping video reminds us humans that survival of any species depends upon community. 

Bees are not into social distancing. But that behavior—working side by side—can also lead to their demise just as it’s done to humans in meat packing plants, etc. I watched your video with admiration for bees, but with recognition that this is no time for us to emulate them.
Vince V.: I was born in 1946 and Mad magazine began publishing in 1952. I should have been a prime reader, but I have never opened a Mad magazine. Oh, the vagaries of a misspent youth.

Finally . . .

This week’s watercolor: Wiley Hall, Emory and Henry College

Best quote of the week:

“Ignorance is of a peculiar nature; once dispelled, it is impossible to reestablish it. It is not originally a thing of itself, but is only the absence of knowledge; and though man may be kept ignorant, he cannot be made ignorant.” Thomas Paine (1737-1809) English-born American patriot, magazine editor, pamphleteer, essayist and engineer

Helping those in need

Fires in California, hurricanes on the Atlantic Coast, tornados in Tennessee, and now coronavirus — 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: America’s chief subversive, more on the bees, the Marvelettes, and talking ourselves into infirmities: newsletter, April 17, 2020


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