Department of English Newsletter: March 2013

My Walk on the Wild Side—Sort Of

by Bill Siebenschuh

The traditional image of the academy is of a tweedy, sheltered, somewhat rarefied kind of place. The ivory tower. According to common stereotype, it’s the exact opposite of the so-called real world. But the two worlds interface more often than you might think.

One day in late spring 2008 while I was still the chair of English I got a phone call from a man who told me he had an amazing story to tell and wanted to know if I would help him tell it. I can make what happened next into a fairly long story, but the gist of it is that after I talked with him, heard his story, and saw the pictures he had to back it up, I was hooked. The man’s name is James E. Long. His nickname is “Diz” because he was known for liking Dizzy Gillespie’s music. Since 1997 he has lived in the Abington Arms, a senior disabled community just a few blocks from Guilford House. Before that, he did the kind of things they make movies about.

Born in Meadowbrook, West Virginia, in 1925, he was separated from his parents by the age of two and grew up in his grandmother’s family in Detroit. He started getting into trouble early, was sent to various special schools for troubled youth, spent some time in foster care, and eventually—as World War II was winding down—enlisted in three different branches of the service before landing permanently in the air force and becoming a paratrooper in the famous all-black 555th Division of the 82nd Airborne—the “Triple Nickels.”

He boxed and was a sprint champ in the air force and a football player good enough to be scouted by the Detroit Lions and the then Chicago Football Cardinals. (As a semipro on a team called the Lake Erie Vets, he played in a game against a team whose quarterback was a guy named John Unitas.) After his try at professional and semi-pro football he came to Cleveland, where, after working for a time at Bellefaire (at the time a live-in facility for troubled youths in University Heights), he drifted into the worlds of the old Majestic Hotel and the black numbers rackets.

He provided muscle for the numbers people in Cleveland, was briefly an emcee at the Majestic Hotel and the Chatterbox. He spent a year as celebrity bodyguard to novelist Harold Robbins (The Carpetbaggers, The Betrayers, and many others, most of them controversial for their graphic sexuality) and while there regularly attended Robbins’ notorious Hollywood parties. He did some body guarding and security work for Mayor Carl Stokes and, briefly, for Frank Sinatra. In the later 1970s when Cleveland was being called “Bomb City” because of the on-going gang wars, Diz occasionally drove for Shondor Birns (notorious mobster and racketeer once labeled Cleveland’s “Public Enemy Number One”). He knew Danny Greene (colorful mobster who was blown to smithereens in the bomb wars of the 1970s and was the subject of the recent film, Kill the Irishman). Diz himself was shot from ambush and nearly killed in 1976, and for fourteen years he was a bodyguard and enforcer for Reuben Sturman, the porn king of Cleveland.

In the course of these various adventures, he once put a groggy Lana Turner to bed (while working for Harold Robbins), shook hands with Pablo Picasso (on a trip with Sturman to the Cannes Film Festival), and routinely breezed past the security guards at Logan Airport with thousands of dollars in medium sized bills taped lightly to his body—payoffs from Sturman to the east coast crime families.

Getting the chance to help him tell his story was a once in a lifetime opportunity. After that first meeting, we met regularly about once a week for the next few years. I spent about a year and a half interviewing and then interviewing him again with follow up questions. The story, as it emerged, went through several drafts, and it took about another year and a half to get something final. Sometime during the process Diz said that he felt like I was getting the short end of the stick because of all the time I was spending on it. I could never get him to understand fully how wrong he was. Talking with him allowed me to imagine ways of life and looking at the world I couldn’t possibly have imagined for myself.

In his day, Diz Long lived with people and did things I have only read about or seen in movies. When I was a sophomore in high school (1958) trying to get up the nerve to ask a girl out, Diz  was already getting into the muscle end of the numbers rackets, introducing Nancy Wilson and Dinah Washington at the Chatterbox, and taking Billie Holiday to breakfast after late night performances. In the mid 1970s—when I was a newly minted Assistant Professor at Fordham University trying my best to do a good job teaching Jane Austen and worried about getting tenure, Diz was cracking heads in Cleveland and playing pick up basketball at the downtown YMCA with Jim Brown and John Wooten. In the later 1970s and the 1980s while I was grading papers, holding office hours, and going to committee meetings at Case Western Reserve, Diz was getting shot, riding around Cleveland with Shondor Birns, “adjusting the attitudes” of Reuben Sturman’s enemies, and keeping cocaine shipments safe for a friend who was a big time dealer. I got to see it all through Diz’s eyes, watch him as he sometimes vividly relived the moments, and then try to capture those moments in words.

It’s not clear yet what’s going to happen with the book that resulted. I’m looking for a publisher. Diz will be eighty-eight this summer, and so I have made him an e-book—something he can hold in his hands and show friends. We keep in touch. I talk with him by phone about twice a month and visit now and then. Of course I hope that something will come of it, but I can live with it if it doesn’t. The real fun was the process itself, and it’s given me a lot to think about.

In the autobiography course I taught last fall, we read a book by Doris Lessing (Alfred & Emily) in which she points out that, “You can be with . . . people, even those getting on a bit, and never suspect that whole continents of experience are there, just behind those ordinary faces.” Indeed. Diz Long had been living a couple of blocks from my office for years, and I would never have noticed him, let alone known him, if he hadn’t called the department that day. It just makes you wonder how many other stories like that are out there—right under all of our noses.


A Writer’s Dream, Gunshots and All

by Andi Cumbo (’01)

Andi Cumbo

The farmhouse is just about the same size as my apartment on Euclid Avenue in East Cleveland.  Except here, I don’t hear gunshots from the park at 2 am.  Instead, they ring out about dawn . . . during hunting season.

This past year, I bought a little farm just off Interstate 29 in the mountains of Virginia. I have ten acres and a 750-square-foot farmhouse that is painted the blue of the winter sky on a clear day.  Right now, I’m in the process of shaping the place – fixing the soffit, clearing the 100 years of garbage dumped on the land, prepping the soil for a big garden and a pasture for goats.  I have successfully eradicated the smell of cat urine from the house itself, and now, my three cats—Oscar (Wilde), Emily and Charlotte (Bronte); a Black-Mouthed Cur named Meander; and I share the space.  It’s cozy . . . and growly.

My dream for this place is to build it into a retreat for writers, musicians, and other artists, a place where they can come to relax and find respite, where they can write and create in a space that inspires and encourages their art.  I haven’t exactly figured out the logistics for how I will run the retreat yet, but I hope it will be informal – a phone call gets you a space in the timber frame lodge I will build or a campsite or time in the yurt or cabin I want to put on the place. Payment will be “as you are able”: just cash or work here on the farm or barter or nothing. I may find that I must be more formal, but for now, as I’m dreaming, I’m hoping that improvisation will be the system.

To survive as artists, we work all the time – creating and then marketing our art to a culture that, sadly, doesn’t value it very much most days.  I want this farm – which I’m calling God’s Whisper after the Biblical story of Elijah and the cave, where God speaks in the quiet ways – to be a place where everyone is valued for who they are and what they are called to do.

I’ve articulated this vision in a small book I published in December—God’s Whisper Manifesto.  In these pages, I lay out the principles that I want to guide this place – “Live with intention but without pretention”; ” Story is paramount.” It’s a vision that seems to spark with some people, and I’m glad to be building a community around this place, this dream.  The book shares my ruminations – so it doesn’t lay out steps or processes; I don’t give advice or suggestions. Instead, I hope people read it and find inspiration for their own dreams of how community works and how they might want to be a part of this one.

Meanwhile, I still use what I learned in my CWRU classes as I write and teach creative writing – Dr. Stonum’s and Mr. Gup’s lessons have stuck well.  Read carefully and write hot.


Faculty Notes

John Orlock presented “Reading the Waters: Early Works of Influence on the Literature of Fly-fishing” at the department’s February Colloquium.
Martha Woodmansee delivered the keynote address, “The Pamela Franchise: Authors and Users’ Rights in 18th Century Britain,” at Creativity and Authorship: Law and Changing Practice, a conference at the University of Canberra in December.>
Paul Jaussen chaired a panel on “Poetics and the Liberal Arts” at the MLA in January.
Bill Marling‘s detective novel expertise was featured in Inside Higher Ed‘s Academic Minute.
Michael Clune’s article, “What Was Neoliberalism?” in the LA Review of Books sparked a debate and was reprinted in
Susan Dominguez’s essay, “Tutoring with My Laptop: Out of the Cubicle onto the Internet,” is the featured reading in the International Writing Centers Association newsletter.


Ongoing Projects

Gendered Constructions of Power

by Malcah Effron

Since I first noticed in a senior seminar that Lady Macbeth asks to be unsexed, and thus made neuter rather than male, I have been fascinated with gendered constructions of power. I found an opportunity to address this interest formally during the first year of my Ph.D. when my dissertation advisor chaired the twentieth-anniversary Feminist and Women’s Studies Association (FWSA) Conference at my institution, Newcastle University. By the start of my Ph.D., I was setting myself up as a detective fiction scholar, so I looked to my field as a means of exploring the gendered relations of language and power. In the FWSA conference paper, I first took a stab at reading Janet Evanovich in relation to Simone de Beauvoir’s notions of the constrictive nature of ideological femininity.

After this conference, my interests shifted to less gendered approaches to rhetorical strategies in detective fiction. I finally returned to this project in my colloquium address on November 16, entitled “Rejecting the Phallus: A Female Symbol of Power in Janet Evanovich.” For the colloquium, I further developed the notion of handcuffs as a symbol of power that is not fraught with the gendered implications of phallic weaponry, such as knives, daggers, swords, and, as is prominent in contemporary literature, the gun. This project ultimately relates to Lady Macbeth’s use of the neuter, as it works toward locating a gender-neutral language as a means of obviating the inherently gendered discourses of power in Western languages and thus enabling all genders more egalitarian access to positions of power.

Using detective fiction written by women as a plausible site for finding reworkings of the masculine power encoded in these traditional weapons cum power symbols, my research landed on Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum series, which identifies itself as a detective fiction-chick lit hybrid, both in its intertextual references and in its epitextual marketing. This framework provides a means of moving beyond the phallic symbols that dominate power discourse in literature, and in detective fiction particularly. By introducing chick lit conventions into loosely rendered detective fiction formulae (or perhaps vice versa), Janet Evanovich parodically conveys the phallic power of guns, as her protagonist openly hates them and prefers to use handcuffs, a tool of power and authority that explicitly is not a phallic symbol. In fact, the shape of handcuffs more closely resembles female genitalia, and thus, becomes a female symbol of power mirroring how phallic shapes imbue symbols of power with masculine overtones. Moreover, as the Plum series has consistently appeared in the best-seller lists since its 1991 debut, it seems that there is a large readership being introduced to alternative ways of figuring power.

This project has reached its culmination in an article, now under consideration by the journal Contemporary Women’s Writing. I continue to pursue the issue of female refigurings of power and power dynamics in a new project that examines texts that interpret Sherlock Holmes’s companion, Dr. Watson, as a woman. This project spans texts from the 1940s to the current CBS series, Elementary. I will present the initial stages of this project at the Fifth International Conference of the Crime Genre Research Network, to be held this June in Galway, Ireland.


Alumni News

Kathryn Anderson (’08) is in her third year as a PhD candidate in the School of Literature, Drama and Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, England. When not writing she teaches undergraduate seminars in Modernism, Literature in History, and Post-war British Drama. She is in her second term as American Scholar at the 2nd Air Division Memorial Library in Norwich.
Alum (’97) Michael Rectenwald‘s book The Thief and Other Stories has just been published by Apogee Books.
Sarah Sadid (’11) works as a Development Assistant at the Children’s National Medical Center at the Children’s Hospital Foundation in Washington, D.C. She is also a regional Ambassador for the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network and the Advocacy Chair of Relay for Life at Georgetown University.
Alum (’63) Raymond Keen’s book of poems, Love Poems for Love Poems for Cannibals, has been published.
Zena Zipporah (’70) has been named a CPAC 2013 Creative Workforce Fellow.


Writing Week Events

Monday, April 15
“AT&T’s Cold War Modernism: Narrating the Liberal Arts in Times of Crisis.” Mark Wollaeger (Vanderbilt University). The 2013 Edward S. and Melinda Melton Sadar Lecture in Writing in the Disciplines. Thwing 1914 Lounge. Reception: 4 p.m. Lecture: 4:30 p.m.


Tuesday, April 16

“The Parent-Child Play of Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder, Speech/Language Impairment, and ADHD: Implications for Parenting, Assessment, and Intervention.” Maia Noeder, Psychology, CWRU. An A&S Dissertation Seminar. Clark 206. 4 p.m.


Wednesday, April 17

“Empathizing, Sharing, and Coping with Life: An Investigation of Postpartum Depression in a South African Township.” Sarah Rubin, Anthropology, CWRU. An A&S Dissertation Seminar. Clark 206. 4 p.m.


Thursday, April 18
Sarah Gridley Poetry Reading. Guilford Parlor. 6:00 p.m.


Friday, April 19
Celebration of Student Writing. Adelbert Gym. 12:00 to 3:00.


Friday, April 19
Adrian Event. Jason Carney. “The Shadow Modernism of Weird Tales: Experimental Aesthetics and Pulp Fiction in the 1920s and ’30s.” Clark 206. 4:00 p.m.


Writers Conference

Breaking Genre: A Writers Conference will take place June 1, 2013, on the campus of Case Western Reserve University. Keynote speaker Paula McLain (author of the acclaimed novel The Paris Wife) will present “Closer Than You Think: Thoughts on Genre Bending, Blending and Plain-Old Jumping Ship.” Presenters: Joyce Dyer, Sarah Gridley, Charles Oberndorf, Lynn Powell, Brad Ricca, James Sheeler, Sarah Willis, David Young. One day only. Saturday, June 1st, 2013. Keynote. Classes. Panel Discussion. Book Fair. Cost $95. College Students $75. For more information, email

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