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Harmonizing the Disharmonious: Robert Coover and the MLC, Part II

To celebrate Robert Coover’s upcoming visit to Washington University for a Neureuther Library Lecture Series reading on November 1, 2016, we are highlighting Coover materials in the Modern Literature Collection. The following is the second of a three-part series.

The Many Conversations of Robert Coover

Robert Coover‘s work is singular in its ability to generate an ongoing conversation, both figuratively and literally. His stories are notorious for incorporating the reflections of numerous characters, jumping radically between different expressive modes, and illustrating the rhetorical seepages between them.

As Coover expressed in a 1981 interview with Kay Bonetti for the American Audio Prose Library, he loves short stories for the freedom they offer to “experiment and try on different roles.” Speaking of his premiere 1969 collection Pricksongs and Descants, Coover explained that when crafting a collection, he tries to choose “stories that [speak to] my developing ideas about fiction.”

Here, Coover reads from the introduction to his collection Pricksongs and Descants at a 1969 reading in Washington University‘s Brown Hall.

Many of Coover’s longer fictions also form an extended dialogue among each other, a dialogue which is perhaps best exemplified by his 2014 book The Brunist Day of Wrath, a novel which serves as a sequel to his first book–The Origin of The Brunists–published in 1966. Though The Brunist Day of Wrath is set in relatively the same space and time period as The Origin of The Brunists–taking place a mere 5 years following the dissolution of the apocalyptic “Brunist” cult–and though Coover contemplated the possibility of a sequel for many years, the follow-up novel was ultimately motivated by the 2000 presidential election of George W. Bush. Coover’s writing was compelled by the surge of religious power in Bush’s right wing administration, the rise of a cult-like atmosphere in American politics.

Here, Stanely Elkin introduces Coover at the 1969 Brown Hall reading with a discussion of The Origin of the Brunists. He exalts Coover’s “energy…as diffuse as his life,” in awe of his highly varied and prolific writing: “He is working on over 50 projects.” In turn, Coover tells an amusing Elkin anecdote after the introduction.

Even more recently, Coover has extended his ongoing conversation around American politics with an examination of his novella-length short story “The Cat in the Hat for President,” which was later published in 1980 as the slightly adapted A Political Fable. The story was inspired by Coover’s reading of Dr. Seuss to his three children, during which it dawned on him that the “cheerful anarchic youth of this generation” were all brought up by “the Cat.” He noticed the symbol “I CAN READ IT ALL BY MYSELF” on the book’s cover and decided this boldly optimistic declarative statement resembled a campaign button. Coover is reframing his text around the furor of the 2016 presidential election with a live podcast reading on Wednesday, October 26th, which can be accessed through the Brown University LiveWebcast.

On the more literal end of Coover’s conversational spectrum, he is known for his engaged (and engaging) dialogue with other authors (often about other authors, as per Coover’s correspondence with William H. Gass). Here, he writes to Stanley Elkin about a prospective publication in Playboy Magazine (where Coover’s work had already been featured).

In addition to his more formal letters, Coover seems to enjoy sending brief notes of salutation on postcards, reaching out as though from some continuous journey.

Here, he greets his Lord John Press editor Herb Yellin.

Front of a postcard from Coover to Herb Yellin. The postcard depicts a horse-drawn carriage on a city street.
Front of postcard to Herb Yellin from Coover. From the Lord John Press Collection.
Back of a postcard from Coover to Herb Yellin. The message is in illegible cursive; the address is to a location in Northridge, California.
Back of postcard from Coover to Herb Yellin. From the Lord John Press Collection.

Here, Coover extends a warm offer to William Gaddis: “We want to get you up here for a reading or something. A good meal…”

Front of a postcard from Coover to William Gaddis. The postcard is a drawing of two baseball players, the catcher and a man at bat.
Front of postcard from Coover to William Gaddis. From the William Gaddis Papers.
Back of a postcard from Coover to William Gaddis. The message is in illegible cursive; the address is to a location in Wainscott, New York.
Back of postcard from Coover to William Gaddis. From the William Gaddis Papers.

Thus—with the remarkable energy lauded by Elkin Coover’s words reach out to complicitous friends and readers, speaking on the dual levels of his pages and his life.

For more information on Robert Coover and writers from the Modern Literature Collection, visit the MLC digital archive at: Modern Literature Collection: The First Fifty Years.