More About Original Comic Book Artwork

I’m once again copying my part of a conversation I had on a relatively closed Facebook loop so that all others may see it. A discussion about comic book artwork for sale led to people suggesting that all original comic book art for sale might be stolen goods and that there should be provenance for this art just as there is–or as people try to reconstruct provenance–in the larger art world. I had this to say:

“I do not think the provenance of original art is significant if that art was produced prior to 1974 when Marvel started returning art, and whatever date DC started. No one is sure who legally owned those prior produced pages. The provenance of newer art is clearer, but it’s irrelevant unless an individual had art in his possession and it was stolen; that would be a property crime and something could be done about it. It would be up to that person to publicize the theft and to track down the art, though; I doubt the police would assign any detectives to the case until the person found the art. Otherwise, it’s all pointless speculation and people should feel free to buy whatever art they like. The Comics Journal published my Marvel inventory; I no longer have the original inventory. That artwork may or may not be on the market today but since Marvel never has pursued anyone for selling any Marvel art, I would not lose sleep over buying an original Kirby page from a stranger outside a comics shop. I might consider mugging the guy, though.”

My moment of levity was quickly countered by a mention of the infamous theft of classic 1960s original artwork from the Marvel offices that soon after was followed by a flood of classic Marvel art being sold at a local convention. It was suggested that the living artists or their heirs might initiate civil suits to regain the artwork produced prior to 1974. I said the statute of limitations would have run out on that criminal theft, but was reminded that civil suits might have longer terms. A quick check of the net suggests that those terms have long since run out, though the recent lawsuit by the Kirby heirs against Disney (Marvel’s parent owner now) suggests that a substantive enough case might not be dismissed out of hand.

Which leads to my next post,

“Although anyone can sue anyone for anything, with artwork produced prior to 1974, “rightful owners” is not something that has been agreed upon. Possession was determined with my Marvel inventory, not ownership. Ownership was claimed for insurance purposes, of course. It does seem fairly clear that some of that art was later stolen from Marvel but I was not working for Marvel at the time and to my knowledge Marvel did not officially pursue the theft. Maybe someone knows if Marvel ever notified the police that a theft had occurred, or listed what had been taken, or made an insurance claim. I doubt it happened, but I have no way of knowing if Marvel accepted compensation for the stolen artwork since insurance payouts are not matters of public record. If the insurance company paid, then the insurance company now has title to the stolen art, not Marvel. If Marvel ever had ownership rights to begin with! Thus we’re back to an issue of who owns the art. I think you are right to advise people not to buy from people who might themselves be thieves, but determining that is not easy, either.”

I think it is important to reiterate that although Marvel insured the artwork as if Marvel owned it, that ownership was based on Marvel’s physical possession of the artwork implicitly defining the ownership as belonging to Marvel. This is a rich topic for discussion and no one has definitively tested such ownership in the courts. Even if they had, one decision could be reversed by a later decision, and the case for artists’ enduring rights in their work has gained some moral ground over the last few decades, although no legal ground that I know of.

I have no idea if Marvel kept up the insurance policy, but originally the suggested value of the art was $100 per page, which at the time was the production cost of one page of comic book artwork, including pencils, inks, and lettering. That amount was far in excess of the resale value of most original art back then, and remains far in excess of the resale value of some artwork in the secondary market today. Artwork value in the fan market has always been based on the popularity of the specific artist or the subject, so even in 1976, it is possible that one single page of classic Kirby artwork or any Spider-Man page could have sold for $100 or more to a fan. But at the time, that price was not likely for most comic book art for resale. If Marvel had put in an insurance claim, it would have received $100 per page lost to theft, and no more, regardless of who drew it, whether at the time one could buy a page of that artist’s work for $5 or $500.

It could be important to pull out my statement above that if Marvel had made an insurance claim and if the claim had been paid, if and when the artwork had been recovered, it would have belonged to the insurance company unless Marvel refunded the insurance payout, in effect buying it back. Once a claim was made, it would have been the insurance company’s job to determine the validity of the claim and possibly to recover the artwork rather than pay the claim, except that at $100 a page, we aren’t talking about big money here for an insurance company, and this isn’t a movie. The company would probably have paid the claim. If it ever was made. So the provenance for those pages would be an unnamed insurance company. Maybe.

What if you bought a page of Kirby artwork with your entire life savings? Chances are that the company or person you bought the artwork from did not go to the Marvel Comics offices circa 1980 and steal that page. But maybe that page was stolen, and a few buyers later it has come to you. Legally, as of today, you are in the clear. Morally, what is your responsibility? I don’t know. We each have our own thoughts about who owns comic book original artwork that was produced as a collaborative effort at a time when no one, not the artists, nor the letterer, nor the writer, nor the publisher valued that piece of Bristol board once it had been used to create a printed comic book page.



Published in: on October 1, 2014 at 5:07 PM  Comments (3)  

About Marvel Comics Original Artwork in the 1960s

As many people know, I was in charge of the Marvel art warehouse (actually, a moderately large locked room in an industrial building) in the mid-1970s. I did an exhaustive inventory of all Marvel Comics original art. The details of that inventory were published in The Comics Journal years ago. I no longer have any records of my inventory. I don’t recall asking anyone at Marvel such as Stan Lee or Sol Brodsky (then vice president of production) why any particular issues were missing.

Below is the text of what I recently posted on Facebook about my knowledge of Marvel Comics’ policy regarding giving original artwork to fans in the 1960s or early 1970s–back when original comic book artwork had virtually no retail value:

“As I said many years ago, Stan (or Stan through Sol Brodsky) did from time to time ask me to provide original artwork from the warehouse to give to business contacts. These did not amount to many pages, but the inference was that this was something Stan did now and then to promote business with Marvel. I also found a record of a limited number of pages that had been lent to a comic art show before I got to Marvel in 1974, and there may have been a few other such instances. But I believe most if not all of those lent pages had been returned. I never heard of any non-pro being given Marvel artwork, nor do I recall any rumors of such when I was a fan, or recall seeing any such pages back in the 1960s when we fans would share our collections of comics and related items.”

Why am I posting this? Because comics fans keep asking, and there is a lot of sub rosa gossip about people who might in fact have obtained artwork stolen from Marvel Comics. Or given to them by someone at Marvel Comics who probably did not have official authority to dispense it. But this whole line of thought is pointless, because in the 1960s, Marvel Comics did not value the original art once the comic book had been printed.

Marvel didn’t even value it for reprint use. As Marie Severin recently reminded me, Nancy Murphy, who was the entire subscription department for many years, was told repeatedly that she was wasting her time and valuable office space by archiving the film and black lines that came from the printer. Her file cabinet containing negative photostats of covers was the only cover archive in the office. The only one, and she got flack for having an archive at all. When I did my warehouse art inventory, I found only a handful of original covers and no other media with the cover art. It is totally thanks to Nancy Murphy that Marvel Comics was ever able to reprint anything from earlier than the mid-1970s, when Marvel started to pay attention to what it owned.

That’s why to me, a former Marvel Comics staffer who saw how the company basically disregarded and disrespected its history, the idea that it might also disregard and disrespect the original artwork that created its history is not news. It’s just another sad reality in the history of a wonderful art form.

Copyright © 2014 by Irene Vartanoff






Published in: on April 18, 2014 at 9:45 AM  Comments (65)  

Is the Literary World Elitist?

Of course it is. We who have read comic books and loved them have known forever that the literary world also is full of emperors with no clothes. I as a woman also recognize that far too many novels by male writers about men become or became the toast of the male-oriented literary world even though novels by women about women often are or were just as good or better. Recently, an issue cropped up that was covered in Salon, in which a literary author was chided in online reviews of her book for using pretentious language, specifically the word “crepuscular.”

I find this article and the comments debating it especially entertaining because one of my more well-educated friends taught me the word “crepuscular.” Since learning it,  I have used it frequently and defined it to people who clearly don’t know what it means. Practically, it means I live in a North Atlantic state on the east coast of the U.S., an area overrun with white-tailed deer. Deer are crepuscular; they prefer low-light conditions. Therefore they are likely to run into the road and hit my car at any shady time of day or night. Because they are not nocturnal, 4 PM is just as dangerous an hour as 10 PM. The deer are everywhere, in suburbs and out in the boondocks, in the median strips on big highways, and more. They’re a menace, and talking about them with accuracy is both fun and necessary. Crepuscular indeed.

Pretentious use of language is one of the few joys of people who are highly educated but who do not work or reside in academia or speak exclusively to those who do. Perhaps attorneys and doctors live a similarly vocabulary-privileged life. They use the big words they learned, and expect everybody around them to figure out what is meant. (You go home with a diagnosis of “epicondylitis” and tell your spouse you have tennis elbow.) As for the rest of us, we speak mostly to people who do not understand the big words we know, and we constantly have to dumb down our language to be understood at all. It’s very frustrating. It’s like knowing how to do very intricate tango steps and only finding dance partners who can’t do any steps at all.

I once had a boss who ridiculed me (or attempted to) because I used the word “labyrinthine” to describe some frustrating aspect of our work. Knowing big words and daring to use them seemed pretentious to him; in his world, anything educated was to be mocked. To me the word I used was the most precise description of our job dilemma, and it was used without any intent other than to express my frustration. The irony of the situation was that our work was distributing books and magazines. The limitations of my employment were never more obvious than when he tried to put me down for using a “big word.” He also knocked me for using the word “eke,” as in eking out a small amount of something, and that’s not a big word at all. Oh, well. It was a short interlude in my life.

As a novelist, I see myself falling into the opposite trap. I am so used to dumbing down my language that I use pedestrian words when my novel likely would benefit from more elegant choices. I have taken a few writing courses that strongly suggest I should be using metaphors, similes, and more complex word arrangements. Yet I want to be intelligible to the people reading my stories, so my automatic choice is to write in the vernacular, not in the literary style that would make understanding the meaning of my words something that readers would have to work to get. I’ve had that experience as a reader, and I don’t like it. I had a huge debate with my father over what was not said but he insisted was implicit in an Agatha Christie short story. I disagreed strongly with what literary critics claimed was the implied ending of Villette (by Charlotte Bronte). I hate the idea that the author does not tell me what happened, and I refuse to do that as an author myself.

I adore big words because they are far more precise than small words. But I do not live in the literary world. I don’t read literary fiction unless I trick myself into it by proposing some worthy piece to my library book club. Most of the time, literary fiction leaves me cold. It depends too much on unhappy endings, for one thing. It too often shows a world of mean-spirited, selfish people, for another. I prefer to read stories with a guarantee: a happy marriage, a solution to the murder mystery, etc. If I did routinely read literary novels, I believe I’d be in dire straits. I’d be setting myself up, over and over, to be depressed about life. No thanks. I can do that without reading a book. I want an author to propose a problem and then solve it.

Recently I read a lovely, thoughtful literary novel, but I knew that the uplifting arc of the story was sure to dump me out in the cold merely because it was a literary novel. And so it did. Just at the point of greatest happiness, the heroine gets run over by a truck. Really. A truck. If that isn’t the biggest piece of deus ex machina external plotting ever, I’m Howdy Doody. After all those pages of things getting better, the author felt it was necessary to end the story on a “Life sucks.” note. Literary novelists seem to have sworn an oath never to provide a happy ending. Apparently they fear that if they write happy endings they will be accused of not being quite literary enough, and of pandering to the hoi polloi. The hoi polloi would be me, the person who would rather not see the novel’s central figure get run over merely because the idea of a happy ending is insupportable to the author and to the author’s intended readership.

Back to the original question: Is the literary world elitist? And by strong inference, is anyone who uses a “big word” a literary snob? Yes to the first, and no to the second. Mere use of language to be precise carries no imputation. Using the word crepuscular in speech to an individual who clearly does not know what it means is a form of boasting only mitigated by immediately defining the word, thus adding to that person’s store of knowledge. I’m the kind of person who is glad to learn something new. Others might not be, and thus they would feel snobbery is involved. Using such a word in a book isn’t elitism or snobbery at all, because, as the original article writer points out, it’s dead easy to find definitions for anything via the Internet. You’re reading a book. You can put it down or go to another screen and look up the word. Quit whining. That was a favorite phrase of my long-ago boss, and he was right. Whining couched as an outraged book review is still whining.

Copyright © 2014 by Irene Vartanoff

Published in: on February 19, 2014 at 4:41 PM  Comments (1)  

Happy 84th Birthday, Marie Severin!

I spent some hours with Marie in July. She was her usual hilarious self. Marie is someone who knows how to be happy.  Marie Severin 7-21-13

Published in: on August 21, 2013 at 12:01 PM  Comments (10)  

I Still Love You, Daddy

Today is Father’s Day, a day we never celebrated in our family because my parents both thought it was a commercial construct and not a legitimate holiday. I have to thank them yet again for raising me without creating these unnecessary situations that so many people find filled with angst, with anger, and with a laundry list of unhappy memories.

I loved my father, and I knew my father loved me. He was openly affectionate, although not a big hugger and kisser. On the spectrum of standard American paternal behavior in the 1950s and 1960s, he was considerably more demonstrative than most. He also was a fairly typical heavy European father, and I had plenty of school friends with similar fathers. They were strict, they expected obedience, and they weren’t afraid to enforce it. They wanted us girls to do well in school and learn our manners and above all, be modest, chaste maidens that a likely young man would find suitable for marriage. That’s an old-fashioned standard, but that’s how those fathers, mine included, thought.

Having this kind of father could be frustrating. Daddy believed that girls should have long hair. My hair as a girl was very thick, and quite curly. In those pre-air conditioning times, my hair was a nuisance on hot days when we kids were playing outdoors (which was always, because our mothers threw us outside to play so we wouldn’t mess up their clean houses). My father would not allow me to get my hair cut in a short cut. He only allowed his cousin, among other things a trained barber, to hack off some of the ends once in a while. By third grade, I’d had enough of this, and when my elementary school made some kind of connection with a certain hairdresser, I begged my mother to take me to him and let him cut my hair. We did it. My father was so enraged that he sent me away from the dinner table in the dining room, and I was forced to eat in the cold, uninviting den, far from the family. He also threatened not to let me go to a birthday party that evening–a big deal to a nine-year-old. Rather an extreme reaction, considering the shocking new haircut was still quite conservative. Boy, was it comfortable. My father eventually adjusted.

But Daddy did not back down when it came to wearing makeup. He wouldn’t let me. Why not? Because he’d actually visited Prince Matchabelli’s cosmetics laboratory many years before. And what my father saw was that lipstick contained bleach. He said if I used lipstick it would take away the natural color of my lips. I thought this was Daddy hooey. I did not want to hear it. But I had to obey his dictum. About forty years later, cosmetics companies did finally reveal the chemicals in their products. And lo and behold, lipsticks contained bleach. Daddy was right. I’ve never worn lipstick, nor particularly missed it after those first few rebellious yearnings to be like the other girls. His logic made too much sense to me, so I didn’t even sneak it on while out and about, or while away from home at college. It was not my original choice to go the natural look route, but the times favored it, too.

So, he won some and I won some, and that’s how it went with numerous battles during my childhood. It was humbling as a young adult to discover over and over that he had been right about this or that. But it was too late to tell him, because he died when I was twenty-one and still in college.

I hope my father had the same wisdom I have gained since then, to realize that within our families we often do our best and give our best, but are not honored for doing so at the time. We make decisions our children rebel against. We hand out solid advice that our children laugh at, as we laughed at our parents’ well-meaning efforts. In negotiating adult life, I have experienced many instances of realizing that parents forgive us anyway, and in advance. Which is yet another reason to be thankful that my father did not demand a test of love each year in June on Father’s Day. Our family life was not all roses, and I don’t know how many of those Father’s Days would have been happy events. I’m guessing none. But I still love you, Daddy, and I know you loved me, and that’s what counts.

Published in: on June 16, 2013 at 10:34 AM  Comments (1)  

What’s Inside a Telephone


It’s not a smartphone, so it must be a dumbphone, right?

But look at all the charming little bits and pieces, each of them rather smart, that make up a conventional landline phone:

Inside a landline phone

Inside this phone is an entire factory. It could be Gary, Indiana, in its heyday (but without the smokestacks). Mysterious shapes connect to other mysterious shapes. Not mysterious to you if you have some background in electronics, but definitely mysterious to me with my degree in English Literature. That’s okay. Because I don’t know what all these cute little things are, I can pretend they are far more interesting than perhaps is the reality. To me, they appear efficient, but that’s because I can’t recognize which ones are dead.

Alas, this phone suffered hard use. I banged on it with the receiver after hours of frustrating phone calls trying to get the auto club to rescue a motorist stranded in subzero weather. The phone never fully recovered from such ill-usage. Eventually, after a series of power outages that additionally outraged its systems, the phone silently declined to make or receive further calls. Mea culpa? Probably.

I’ll be recycling these pieces shortly. Perhaps some day I’ll try to learn what the guts of this phone are and do, or what I could have done to fix it, but it seems unlikely since landline phone technology is basically obsolete. This phone does not play video games. It doesn’t do e-mail. It can’t show me a weather map. On the other hand, it does not tell a spy where I am unless I plug it into a phone outlet and put in some batteries. And it does look purposeful. A tiny manufacturing plant all by itself, connecting me to the world along wires buried in the ground and then strung high in the air. How amazing.

Published in: on March 28, 2013 at 8:46 PM  Leave a Comment  

Why Marie Severin is My Friend

From our days of working at Marvel Comics.

Published in: on February 25, 2012 at 9:09 PM  Comments (2)  

Is Sharon Moody a Copyright/Trademark Infringer?

When I was in charge of rights and permissions at DC Comics, in the 1980s, we tracked down any infringements we became aware of, and told the infringers in no uncertain terms (often as a letter directly from our lawyers) to cease and desist. This meant telling people to stop using the distinctive (and trademarked) Superman symbol. This meant telling people to stop using the distinctive (and trademarked) Superman telescopic logo lettering. Of course it meant telling them to stop using his image.

The guy who put Superman on his wedding invitations thought we were poor sports, and did not understand that he was violating copyright and trademark by swiping a specific Superman image and republishing it himself (or paying a catalog company to do it for him). He was infringing on DC Comics’ right to exploit the Superman image in wedding invitations. This might seem trivial, but it’s not. When Hallmark recently obtained a license to market Green Lantern greeting cards priced at $7.99 each, it surely paid for the exclusive right to do so, not to have competition from anybody with access to a copier and some card stock. Licensing of comics characters has had a long and lucrative history. DC Comics naturally had to protect its right to control its copyrighted and trademarked images.

The guy who spent thousands to have Superman painted on his tour bus was even more upset that DC Comics was unwilling to let someone else make money off the Superman character. He didn’t realize that the painter was ripping DC Comics off. He probably didn’t care, either, but my duty was to inform him (and our law department) that an infringement had occurred.

The recent case Scott Edelman cited [ed. note: he’s my husband] of artist Sharon Moody creating works of art by copying entire comic books spread open and creating a trompe l’oeil effect on an otherwise blank canvas has several infringement implications. I’m not a lawyer, but I was trained by one at DC Comics, and here’s what I see as the potential legal problems inherent in her utterly faithful copies of the original publications:

1. The commercial use of a significant amount of any publication, rather than a panel excerpt or up to about fifty words of text, is not fair use. It requires permission by the copyright holder, and such permission usually carries a fee based on the profit involved in the re-use. If one of  Sharon Moody’s paintings of a Batman comic page sells for $50,000, she would be expected to pay DC Comics a very hefty chunk of that sale price. Such a deal would have to be negotiated before she copied and sold the material; otherwise, the rights owner could sue her to obtain all her proceeds.

2. The reproduction of any published printed copyrighted material requires a copyright notice. Although there are many instances on the Internet of people grabbing a panel here or there, or a figure, to illustrate a website article or a blog post, or even entire pages to amuse friends on Facebook, these are properly accompanied by a copyright notice. They only escape a cease and desist letter because they are not commercial use and/or they are too small and random to come to the attention of and infringe on the rights owners’ commercial rights. Sharon Moody’s artwork is on display for sale to the public in an uptown Manhattan gallery, which makes it commercial, and potentially neither small nor random, depending on the prices realized for each of her copied canvases.

3. Sharon Moody’s exact copies of published comic books can be construed both as plagiarism and as muddying a trademark. (There’s a technical legal term for the latter and I’ve forgotten it. Sorry.) In a court case, the comic book companies could make a compelling argument that she is aware the general public will mistake the pages she has copied for her own original work rather than copies of previously existing work. Their argument would be that she is passing off someone else’s work as her own. The evidence would be that she does not credit any of the original creators of the physical artwork or the words, or the copyright holders.

Most infringements are “mistakes,” that is, they are perpetrated by ignorant people who do not know anything about copyrights or trademarks. Characters such as Superman or Batman have been popular for so long they have entered the zeitgeist and therefore many people imagine they in some way belong to all of us. Perhaps they do, morally or culturally. However, both the copyrights and the trademarks of comic book characters have been the subjects of extended lawsuits for decades now. It would be hard to claim ignorance of their vast commercial value. Anyone trying to cash in on such commercial value without license runs the risk of being sued.

There’s another side to infringement enforcement, and that is what might be called plausible denial. When I did rights and permissions for DC Comics, we routinely looked for potential infringements, but we knew we probably missed some. As long as we could show a court that we vigorously defended the copyrights and trademarks every time we found an infringement, we could keep our legal right to them. Ignoring blatant commercial infringements is the road to losing those rights, which is a commercial catastrophe. Sharon Moody can call this art, but especially if big money is involved, it’s commerce.

Some comic book artists have helped support themselves in their old age by re-drawing comic book pages they were hired to originally create as works for hire for the companies in years past. Usually, the companies look the other way instead of pursuing these elderly artists for this kind of commercial use, presumably because it doesn’t involve enough money to be worth the lawsuits, and it would result in bad press. In fact, Disney did pursue the artist Carl Barks for making such copies, but backed away from the bad publicity the move generated. Bob Kane, known for his involvement in the creation of Batman, also used to sell paintings of Batman, without being sued. Thus Sharon Moody’s lawyers would have a potential rebuttal, that an artistic, single use has a pattern of being tolerated by the rights owners.

So, is Sharon Moody an infringer? By the standards I was taught while employed at DC Comics, yes, but it’s for a court of law to decide. The comic book companies may choose to ignore her. I don’t think any company bothered to sue Roy Lichtenstein for his many blatant copies of individual comic book panels in the early 1960s. Then again, he didn’t swipe entire pages, use photographic accuracy, or copy famous superhero character images and their trademarks. He wasn’t in any way threatening their licensing value. There wasn’t a Captain America movie then, or a Batman movie franchise. Less was at stake.

Published in: on December 19, 2011 at 9:45 AM  Comments (18)  

My Interest in Hoarding

I’ve discovered another reason why I like to watch television shows about hoarders. It’s not what you think, not schadenfreude. To my surprise, it’s not what I thought either. The fascinating insight I’ve just gained is how close my own feelings are to those of hoarders.

I have reached the stage of life (or one might say the age in life) where I have inherited many family heirlooms. These are not necessarily valuable, though they could be. Regardless, they don’t add up to a life-changing fortune. Thus, rather than hire an auction house to run an estate sale, and myself decamp to an island paradise to await a fortune, I have to go through these pieces one by one and determine if they have a place in my future life, or, alternatively, in the lives of future generations in my family. Not much of those future generations exist as yet, so I’d have to be a sibyl to guess exactly right. Nevertheless, every person who has been landed with family treasures has to make these same decisions. Hoarders don’t. They just keep everything.

For a while I thought our family was lucky because we did not have to hurriedly clear out and dispose of a home. I’ve known friends who had a mere week or two to do it all. In our case, we had plenty of time because the family home was not being sold. Turns out that makes the proper disposition of family possessions more difficult rather than less. Family members have grown attached to pieces that have been in the home for decades, yet without ever having made the decision to own them. Now what?

When there are only a few possessions left from a person, each one is imbued with substantial emotional heft. When there are many possessions, you would think that the sentiment attached to them is milder. No, it’s not. If anything, it becomes greater because the perception is that the loved one cherished these items so much s/he could not bear to part with them even though s/he did not actively use them. Confusing that assumption is the reality that until very recently, disposing of family valuables at anything like a fair price for their value and directly to a person who would truly care about the item was not easy. It was difficult for a person who had only one antique doll to find the doll market and deal effectively in it or even to find someone else who wanted to own an antique doll. So the person kept the doll, whether it was wanted anymore or not. Then you inherit the doll and don’t know if it was dearly loved or just something still waiting to go away. The advent of online selling has changed that situation. It’s relatively simple to determine the fair market value of a piece, and only a little more complicated to sell it for a fair price directly to someone who will appreciate it. An excellent book giving many step-by-step details about how to deal with the possessions in an estate is Sell Keep, or Toss, by Harry L. Rinker. But one book isn’t going to solve the emotional issues behind the disposal tasks.

Considerations of value and appreciation are not the issue for me, I realize at last. After all, I am not throwing anything out. Everything is getting recycled to a good and appropriate home. The problem is, each piece gone is more physical proof that my loved one is dead. It is painful for me to part with them, because unless I find a piece incredibly ugly or completely useless, I think I ought to keep it. In fact I want to keep it, as another talisman. This is a completely irrational feeling, but many of us feel this way. I suddenly understand those hoarders on television who have every possession of a dead parent stuffed into their houses. People are lucky who have to make quick decisions about possessions, disposing of them ruthlessly and putting a family house up for sale in a hurry before returning to another state and a job from which they could only take a short leave. They don’t have time to wallow in the hurt of it all, and they certainly don’t have the luxury of wallowing in the pain object by object. They do feel bereft, of course. But the quick, sharp cut heals better, I think, than the repeated jabs of a dull knife.

Has my insight about hoarders helped me deal with the inevitable necessity of parting with some family possessions? I believe so. Objects are merely objects. We imbue them with personal meaning. We also can choose to disassociate from such personal meaning. I have to admit, though, that letting go of the possessions of a beloved dead relative is painful. Yet they can’t take it with them, and neither can we. Sooner or later, even hoarders have to loosen their iron grip on their possessions. My grip isn’t that tight, but I’m surprised at how close my feelings are to theirs.

Published in: on December 1, 2011 at 2:15 PM  Comments (3)  

How to Become an American

Some immigrants to America expect American culture to bend and change for them. Others embrace American culture, even if there are elements in it they may not like. If they do not, they tend to remain secreted away in ethnic enclaves where they don’t have to speak or write English or acknowledge American social ways. Of course their children adapt and become distant from them, and their grandchildren do not even understand what the old grandmother or grandfather is saying in that strange foreign tongue. There always are cultural interchanges in both directions, and I don’t just mean ethnic restaurants. Even so, some immigrants do not fully become Americans.

I’ve been going through some of my father’s oldest papers, from the late 1930s and early 1940s, when he was employed by the WPA, the Works Progress Administration, one of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal “put people back to work” programs. My father’s role for the WPA was to do a historical survey of Russian and other Eastern Orthodox churches in America. His technical title was “translator.” Why? Because most of the church records had been written in Russian, Greek, Armenian, Georgian, or other languages he could read. He could talk in those languages directly to the priests, many of whom did not speak English well, or at all.

Unlike the many priests he contacted in his research, my father wrote all his notes in English. Why would Michael S. Vartanoff do that, when Russian would have been his most familiar language, the easiest one in which to take notes from a Russian church record? He had only lived in this country for fifteen years by then. Why did he bother to write his notes in English? Because he wanted to master English and fully become an American.

Mixed in among my father’s notes of names of priests and names of churches and addresses to visit and descriptions of church hierarchies are what might at first seem like doodles. On one page, he wrote “1917” over and over. A key year for someone whose entire life was changed by the Russian Revolution. But why was he writing it? To decide which style of number seven to use, with a serif, a line through it, or slanted. Numbers may be the same in the two alphabets, but treatment of them varies. Other pages show him writing his name over and over. Again, why? He was practicing how to write his name in English cursive.

By contrast, I can’t read or write Russian cursive, despite two lazy years of college Russian. Learning the Russian alphabet, the Cryillic alphabet, is not terribly difficult. Employing it on an everyday basis, when one’s native alphabet is different, is work. I never pushed myself to learn the cursive. My father pushed himself constantly to perfect his command of English. I found page after page of quotations copied down and then copied again and again. These were in English cursive. I found pages where he was practicing the shapes of English letters. Again and again, he practiced his name. Don’t we all do that as children, practice our signatures? Imagine having to learn to sign one’s name all over again in a totally different alphabet. My father was undaunted. He made the effort.

By the time I was growing up, my father’s command of English was so perfect that it was only when I took Russian in college that I found he had one grammatical fault to his English. Just one, and itself a minor one about the use of indefinite articles. Of course once I pointed it out, he never made that error again. Not that my father shook off all aspects of being a man of international background. His perspective on the world was global, not insular. How could it be otherwise when his youth was spent halfway around the world in a completely different culture, terrain, and political structure?

Another aspect of my father’s efforts to aculturize himself to America were his scrapbooks of newspaper and magazine articles. Although at the time there were many New York newspapers available in foreign languages, he read and saved articles published in English. He saved an occasional article in Russian, but the majority of his clippings were from English language newspapers. He wrote comments on the articles in English. He familiarized himself with our politics, our culture, our literature. He never lost interest in the fate of the Russian empire in which he grew up, but he read about world events in English, the language of his new country.

I have learned from going through my father’s papers that people who immigrate and want to integrate into a new culture work at it. They don’t stop working at it as years go by, settling for a small vocabulary and a poor command of grammar. They don’t take the easy way out and only talk to people who speak their native language; they also make friends with Americans who speak English. And they don’t expect others to learn their native language. They learn English as a second language, or a third or a fourth, as in my father’s case. They cross the cultural divide. I am in awe of my father’s persistence, his attention to detail, his ambition to achieve mastery in American English. Perhaps he had a leg up, because he’d had a good education in his native country. Or perhaps he had a signal lack, because he came here alone, with no family. Many immigrants with family members perhaps don’t feel a need to connect intimately to their new country. I think they’re missing out. They’re going to be the old grandparent whose words of wisdom nobody can understand.

What is curious is how many immigrants have the exceptional drive and daring to leave their homelands and come here for a better life, but how few of them push beyond the fringes of our society to become Americans. In reading my father’s papers, I now see the difference between immigrants who want to become Americans and who work at it, and those who don’t. The daily struggle to earn a living is irrelevant, by the way; my father lived through the Great Depression and had the same problems others did. Despite that, he still made himself an American, working hard at it long after he’d become a naturalized citizen.

Published in: on November 21, 2011 at 9:56 AM  Comments (7)  

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