Christopher Benfey: Red Brick, Black Mountain, White Clay

November 26, 2017 by  
Filed under Non-Fiction, WritersCast

Red Brick, Black Mountain, White Clay: Reflections on Art, Family, and Survival – Christopher Benfey – Penguin – paperback – 9780143122852 – 304 pages – $16.00 – ebook versions available at lower prices – February 26, 2013

I found this lovely and compelling book by complete happenstance while visiting North Carolina earlier this year. The redoubtable Regulator Bookshop in Durham had a copy out on its “local interest” shelf, and the cover grabbed my attention immediately.

Not knowing anything about author Benfey, I was surprised and pleased to learn about his background through this complex and rewarding memoir. It’s a book that combines so many different areas of his interest – and mine – built around a complex interweaving of his family’s story and his desire to learn about and understand the people in his life story.

Benfey was raised in Richmond, Indiana, where his father was a chemistry professor at Earlham College. His father’s side of the family were German Jews who escaped Hitler, including aunt and uncle Josef and Anni Albers, who were both central figures at Black Mountain College, in North Carolina (and central also to modern arts and crafts in 20th century America). North Carolina is a nexus, as Benfey’s mother grew up in the longstanding folk pottery region of the state as well.

So Benfey’s story starts as a family history, but moves assuredly through art, geography, cultural history and his own personal journey of discovery as a writer and thinker; as the title itself suggests, “names the three paths, each mapping the experience of relatives or ancestors of mine trying — by art, by travel, or by sheer survival — to find a foothold in the American South.”

There are many well-told stories here, and North Carolina is at the core of it all. Even if you have never explored the cultural and geographical riches of that state, this book will capture your imagination and bring you there. Benfey builds his story much as a brick layer does, carefully assembling the pattern from materials at hand to create a fully formed story all the while.

This is a book I am happy to recommend to almost any reader.

Chris Benfey is a professor at My. Holyoke College, where he is Andrew W. Mellon Professor of English. He was educated at the Putney School, Earlham College, Guilford College, and Harvard (Ph.D. in Comparative Literature). Benfey is also a journalist, having served as the art critic for Slate, and also is a contributor to The New York Review of Books, The New York Times Book Review, and The New Republic, among many others. Chris is a renowned Emily Dickinson scholar, and author of four highly regarded books about the American Gilded Age. His edition of essays on the Iliad by Simone Weil and Rachel Bespaloff appeared as War and the Iliad in 2005.

Benfey’s poems have appeared in The New Yorker, the Paris Review, and Ploughshares.

This book is among my favorites and I hope you enjoy the conversation I had with the interesting and well-spoken Christopher Benfey as much as I did.

John Manuel: Hope Valley (a novel)

April 20, 2017 by  
Filed under Fiction, WritersCast

Hope Valley: A Novel – John Manuel – self published – paperback – 9780998111209 – 284 pages – $14.95 (ebook version available at lower price)

In the early 1970s I lived in the more or less rural county outside Durham, North Carolina. It was a far different cultural milieu than I had ever experienced previously, surrounded mostly by farmland and people who had grown up as native North Carolinians. To someone like me, raised in the urban and suburban northeast, North Carolina was, at that time, still very much the traditional Old South, resisting so much of the cultural change that was sweeping America then.

But it was not long after this that things began to change significantly in the South, as increasing numbers of transplants came to places like Durham, Charlotte and many other towns and cities in North Carolina.

John Manuel, who was a classmate of mine in college, got to North Carolina himself in the early 1970s and has stayed there as a writer and cultural observer with considerable skills in both. John is the author of two fine books, The Natural Traveler Along North Carolina’s Coast (John Blair, 2003) and The Canoeist (Jefferson Press, 2006). His environmental journalism has been published in Audubon and many other magazines and his short stories have appeared in the Savannah Anthology and the New Southerner.

John’s novel, Hope Valley, is set in the same general area in which I lived when I was there, and both the geographical setting of the book and its characters will feel both familiar and comfortable to anyone who spent time there or in other parts of the South during the late 20th century, a period of immense change and disruption.

The story centers on Hurley and Opal Cates, who in their retirement live on a small farm on the edge of the growing orbit of Durham. Hurley is committed to caring for his property, particularly its large lawn, and also the house he built for his son, Buddy. But Buddy sells his house to a young female couple, creating a bit of a crisis for the Cates family. Despite many challenges, the two families learn how to co-exist, despite their vast cultural differences.

Much of the novel involves the ways that Hurley and Opal and their new neighbors learn to live together. But things are not so easily resolved, and this sometimes sad and also uplifting story becomes a parable about the difficulties that face modern America today. The book carries a warm and loving message about acceptance and change, and the meaning of respect, mutuality and yes, the valley of hope we all desire for our families and communities.

Hope Valley is a well conceived and beautifully written book that I hope will reach a wide audience, not just in the south. My conversation with author John Manuel reflects my deep appreciation for his book, and John’s quiet, sincere belief in humanity and our future. Learn more about John and his work at his website. You can find the book at most online retailers and also at independent booksellers in North Carolina, for example, the wonderful Regulator Bookshop in Durham.

David Wilk and Thomas Meyer talking about Jargon Society

May 26, 2014 by  
Filed under Publishing History, PublishingTalks

TM1aPublishing Talks began as a series of conversations with book industry professionals and others involved in media and technology about the future of publishing, books, and culture.  As we continue to experience disruption and change in all media businesses, I’ve been talking with some of the people involved in our industry about how they believe publishing might evolve as our culture is affected by technology and the ebb and flow of civilization and  economics.

I’ve now expanded the series to include conversations that go beyond the future of publishing.  I’ve talked with editors and publishers who have been innovators and leaders in independent publishing in the past and into the present, and will continue to explore the ebb and flow of writing, books, and publishing in all sorts of forms and formats, as change continues to be the one constant we can count on.

It’s my hope that these conversations can help us understand the outlines of what is happening in publishing and writing, and how we might ourselves interact with and influence the future of publishing as it unfolds.  This new interview reflects my interest in the history of independent literary publishing, an area in which I have been active for a long time. And this particular conversation reflects some longstanding personal relationships as well.

Jargon Society, founded in 1951 by poet, essayist and photographer Jonathan Williams (1929-2008), was operated for many years by Jonathan alone, then with friends and associates, and later with his life partner, the poet Thomas Meyer. The long list of Jargon publications reflects the aesthetics, thinking, whimsy and artistic vision of Jonathan Williams, for whom the press was, along with his own writing and deep friendships, his life’s work. Jonathan’s commitment was singularly to find and present the unusual, mostly brilliant, sometimes quirky work of writers, artists and photographers those he believed in and found exalting, transformative, and sometimes just plain strange.

Over the course of a half century, beginning when he was a student at Black Mountain College in North Carolina studying with Charles Olson and other mid-century writers, artists and thinkers, Jargon published an incredible range of highly individualized creators, some now famous and fully accepted into the American canon. The list of books and broadsides and other works published by Jargon numbers 115 pieces, and wonderfully reflects the enthusiasms of Jonathan’s life. Included are early works by Black Mountain identified writers like Charles Olson, Robert Duncan, Robert Creeley and Joel Oppenheimer,  then unknown but now well known writers like Denise Levertov, Kenneth Patchen, Michael McClure, Guy Davenport, Gilbert Sorrentino, Louis Zukofsky, Buckminister Fuller and Larry Eigner, and outliers like Douglas Woolf, Peyton Houston, Alfred Starr Hamilton and Bill Anthony. Still others must be accounted to Jonathan’s indefatigable championing of the then virtually unknown writers whom he felt must be shared, including Lorine Niedecker and Mina Loy.

The photography books on the list represent JW’s brilliant visual sensibilities, and include work by Doris Ulmann, Lyle Bonge, Ralph Eugene Meatyard, John Menapace and Elizabeth Matheson, among others, altogether a meaningful aesthetic contribution to photographic publishing. And so do the books on outsider art (which Jonathan was following long before the popular culture caught on).

In all cases, at all times, Jargon books were reflective of Jonathan Williams’ extreme commitment to making beautiful books whose look and feel would always do justice to the writing, photography and art within.

Williams and Meyer, along with a diverse cast of supporters throughout the world, devoted an immense amount of time and energy raising money for the varied endeavors of the Jargon Society. Fundraising was, it seemed, almost as much work for the press’ principals as creating great books. Asking people with money to support the kind of literature and art they might not themselves find compelling is not an easy thing to do. Making pleas for money year after year can be exhausting and it is rare today to find an arts organization whose founder maintains the role of chief fundraiser throughout its history.

Jonathan Williams and Tom Meyer have been hugely influential to my own work as a writer, editor, and publisher. For me they each exemplify the committed life of the artist.  Over the years I published two books of Jonathan’s poems and will soon publish his third and final collection of essays. Over the years I often visited Jonathan and Tom in Highlands, North Carolina, and learned a tremendous amount from both of them, as well as developing deep and long lasting friendships with both. And for a number of years, Inland Book Company, the company I co-founded, was the primary distributor for Jargon, a great and sometimes sobering experience for all of us whose responsibility was to sell these quirky and decidedly noncommercial creations.

Jonathan Williams was always a prolific letter writer; correspondence with the ever witty Williams was a deep and abiding pleasure.

Jargon is an exemplar of what a modern literary press can be: individualistic in the extreme, with a compelling vision of the breadth of art and and our experience of its varied forms, expanding the horizons of all who have the opportunity to be touched by the works and their beautiful singularities.

Recently, in order to continue the legacy of the Jargon Society, Tom has gifted the press and its books to the Black Mountain College Museum and Art Center, where its work can continue in a new context.

I wish I had been working on this interview series long enough ago to have talked to Jonathan Williams with the recorder running. But it was my great pleasure to talk to Tom Meyer about Jargon Society, and of course Jonathan himself, with whom he partnered and worked for forty years. This is a one hour conversation packed with information, evoking the history of one of the great literary accomplishments of the twentieth century.jonathan.williams.cox

A Jargon Society bibliography checklist was published by the extraordinary and wonderful Jacket online magazine.

Appreciation of Jonathan and Jargon by Ron Silliman; an interview with Jonathan by Leverett T. Smith here; feature on JW in Jacket 38.

(Photos of Tom Meyer and Jonathan Williams by Reuben Cox)


J. Phillips L. Johnston: Biscuitville: The Secret Recipe for Building Sustainable Competitive Advantage

March 22, 2010 by  
Filed under Non-Fiction, WritersCast


978-1-935212-05-8 – Hardcover – Easton Studio Press – $21.95

Biscuitville – the company – is a small family owned chain of breakfast restaurants based in North Carolina.  It’s a very successful company financially, but what makes it special is its commitment to real values and to its people above everything else.  This is a company that “walks the talk” in ways that are really striking and deserve attention.

Despite knowing about and even having lived in North Carolina at one point, I had not heard of the company before reading this book.  I was really impressed by what I learned here.  This is not your standard issue company, nor is this your standard issue business book.  Author Phil Johnston is a veteran in business himself, as his biography indicates: he’s a “serial CEO”, having founded 10 successful venture-backed companies, earning him the CED Entrepreneur of the Year award in 1997.  He has been a director of five public companies, including a NYSE-listed company. He holds degrees in economics from Duke University, The Stern Graduate School of Business at NYU, his J.D. from the University of North Carolina Law School and was a scholar at the JFK School of Government at Harvard.

This book tells the story of Biscuitville, the company, but the focus of the book is really about seeing this successful small business as a model for how all business should work.  Scale is no excuse for giving up the values that have marked the growth of the Biscuitville chain.  Anyone in business can learn from the lessons taught by the founders and subsequent generations that are now operating Biscuitville.  It’s really a great story, optimistic and uplifting for anyone who wonders whether American business can be saved.

In my interview with author Johnston, we talked about the Biscuitville company story, and how he came to write it, and we touched upon his wide experience in business, especially on the public side, and how the lessons of this small private company can be transferred to bigger businesses and organizations.   Phil is a great storyteller, with broad and deep knowledge, and an understanding of business issues I hope more people will get to experience through this talk.

Posted 3.22.10.  An excerpt of the book can be found at