Saturday, April 14, 2007

Alice Denham at New Paltz

Novelist-turned-memoirist Alice Denham visited New Paltz on Thursday, to speak to my Honors English class in the afternoon and give a reading-book signing in the evening.

My class has been studying the literature and culture of the 50s, and Alice's new memoir, Sleeping With Bad Boys, is about literary New York in that era, a time when serious novelists had star status, at least in Manhattan. But since so many of my students are writing their research papers about women's issues, the class discussion focused on that part of her experience -- being a young woman in the 50s, how Alice (a founding member of NOW) viewed the changes in the lives of women over the decades. It's hard, today, to imagine a world where abortion was illegal, and Alice, while lucky enough to find a doctor who would do it, had to have her abortion without anesthetic, since the doctor could not risk having an anesthetist in the room. Hard to imagine, as well, how lonely and isolated a young woman could feel back then -- thinking she was the only one having sex, much less having an abortion.

I asked Alice to read my class the section of her book about a party she attended, new and innocent in New York, at Norman Mailer's apartment, where Mailer and his then-wife Adele did an impromptu strip. I think Alice was a little surprised to be asked to read something that risque in class -- and it occurred to me, not for the first time, that I'd have been long since fired for such a thing, if this were still the 50s. The students enjoyed it. But I don't think they have any real sense of Norman Mailer as an American literary figure, although we did read and discuss "The White Negro" in class.

The evening reading was well attended -- I'd guess 100 people or more -- thanks to Lyn Thoman's efforts in promoting it. After 17 years teaching at Marist, where there was no interest in any intellectual gathering outside of class, I'm always particularly gratified (and still a little surprised) to see this kind of turnout. Alice read from the early part of her book, a fascinating sequence about her new-in-New-York relationship with the still-unknown James Dean. She did, however, skip over the section that gave the details on what Jimmy was like between the sheets. For that, read the book.

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