Monday, December 17, 2012

Brian Norman's "Dead Women Talking"

Brian Norman is an associate professor of English and director of African and African American studies at Loyola University Maryland. He is author of Neo-Segregation Narratives: Jim Crow in Post–Civil Rights American Literature and The American Protest Essay and National Belonging.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Dead Women Talking: Figures of Injustice in American Literature, and reported the following:
The page 99 test for Dead Women Talking is delightfully apt, at least if I cherry pick the quotation. The test brings me to the middle of chapter six, “Dead Women Heckling,” which considers the role of Ethel Rosenberg in Tony Kushner’s fabulous play Angels in America. The first line of the new section reads, “If we expect progression toward some higher ideal of forgiveness or reconciliation, a posthumous glasnost between the wrongly executed and the gleeful prosecutor, we will be disappointed, or at least perplexed.” The discussion concerns the bedside sparring match between Ethel and Roy Cohn. Cohn is the McCarthy sidekick who helped send Ethel to the gas chamber and now, in Reagan-era America he lies in a hospital dying of AIDS, though he prefers to call it liver cancer lest he be outed as gay. The question in this chapter is whether forgiveness is required to achieve justice and, if so, what we do with the fact that Cohn dies as gleefully unrepentant as ever.

The page 99 test brings the reader to the line I quoted because it also speaks to the book’s overall argument about the responsibility of the dead. Or rather, the proper responsibility of the living in matters of justice. That is, we call on the dead to talk when the living abdicate the responsibility to seek justice to repair the wounds of history, be it slavery, female silence, or a zealous execution of an innocent mother. As a result, the dead women talking in American literature – from Faulkner’s Addie Bundren to Morrison’s Beloved and even to the narrator of television’s Desperate Housewives, if we push it – are often rather beguiling figures. As they speak and insert themselves into the present community, it is not always clear that they mean the living well. Ethel, too, is one of those figures and page 99 quotes at length her beautifully ferocious curse. It includes such memorable lines as, “You who I have hated so terribly I have borne my hatred for you up into the heavens and made a needle-sharp little star in the sky out of it. It’s the star of Ethel Rosenberg’s Hatred, and it burns every year for one night only, June Nineteen. It burns acid green.” This is why I love Kushner’s Ethel Rosenberg: she is smart, she is ferocious, she is bitchy. And she is right.
Learn more about Dead Women Talking at the Johns Hopkins University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue