Thursday, February 09, 2017

Washing Your Sheets, Productive Writers, and Jitney Linches

Some miscellaneous stuff I've read in recent weeks.

If there was ever any doubt about it, why you need to wash your sheets at least once a week.


Stephen King considers whether a novelist can ever be too productive:
THERE are many unspoken postulates in literary criticism, one being that the more one writes, the less remarkable one’s work is apt to be... 
Mostly, it seems to be true. Certainly no one is going to induct the mystery novelist John Creasey, author of 564 novels under 21 different pseudonyms, into the Literary Hall of Heroes; both he and his creations (the Toff, Inspector Roger West, Sexton Blake, etc.) have largely been forgotten... 
Yet some prolific writers have made a deep impression on the public consciousness. Consider Agatha Christie, arguably the most popular writer of the 20th century, whose entire oeuvre remains in print. She wrote 91 books, 82 under her own name and nine under a nom de plume — Mary Westmacott — or her married name, Agatha Christie Mallowan 
Those novels may not be literary, but they are far above the porridge turned out by John Creasey, and some of them are strikingly good. Christie gave us two characters — Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot — who have achieved a kind of immortality. Add to this the stylistic and thematic unity of Christie’s novels (the cozy warmth of the settings and the British stereotypes, placed within the context of her surprisingly cold appraisal of human nature), and one must view those many books in a different light... 

[David Suchet, who portrayed the definitive Hercule Poirot. Suchet also was a wonderful Aslan in the Focus on the Family Radio Theater production of C.S. Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia.]

[Joan Hickson, who was my favorite Miss Marple. When she was a young actress, Hickson met Marple creator Agatha Christie, who declared that Hickson would be a great Marple, but that she would have to age into the part. She did, many years after Christie had died.] 
No one in his or her right mind would argue that quantity guarantees quality, but to suggest that quantity never produces quality strikes me as snobbish, inane and demonstrably untrue.
As with many alleged truisms, King's essay on writing productivity suggests that this one may not always be true.

There's something to be said for taking one's time, whatever the task. But I also think that there's something to be said for keeping at one's work, taking into account the assessments of your work by people whose judgment you trust, then forging ahead.

It's possible to produce both quantity and quality. Church historian and writer Martin Marty was once asked the secret of his remarkable productivity. He said the answer was simple, "Deadlines."

At the height of his career as host of The Tonight Show, Johnny Carson was asked whether he ever considered doing a weekly show and if doing so would allow him to up the quality of his production. No, Carson said, quality grows to fit its space.

We can all name people who have churned out garbage because they were operating on a tight timeline and trying to do too much. (We can even claim that for ourselves if we're honest.) But I buy into the idea of what Hans Selye called eustress, an optimal stress level: significant enough to challenge us, not so great as to overwhelm us. The right eustress level probably varies from person to person. That may be one reason why Joyce Carol Oates has been a prolific and, many critics believe, a good one; other writers might not be capable of such a pace.

Read all of King's piece.


Back when I was in elementary school, only a few kids stayed at school for lunch. The school day began at 8:30 and ended at 3:30. In the middle of it was an hour-long lunch from noon to 1, time enough for a leisurely walk from school to home and back and a good homemade lunch.

[The Dana Avenue entrance to the elementary school I attended from kindergarten through third grade.]

At the first school I attended, Dana Avenue Elementary, a big annual treat was the Jitney Lunch. When it came along, we actually got to stay at school with all of our classmates for a homemade meal. (Like the one we got at home each day, of course. But it was the change of routine that made it special.)

The anticipation of the Jitney Lunch began when our teachers handed out 6"-x-9" envelopes that had been run through the school mimeograph machine. On the fronts of the envelopes were menu choices that we checked. Our parents tucked money for the lunch inside the envelopes and we returned them to school. The lunch was a fund-raiser for the PTA.

I was reminiscing about all of this a few weeks ago with my mom and dad when a question struck me. What exactly does jitney mean anyway. No one knew.

Of course, I pulled out my smart phone and consulted with that repository of all knowledge, real and fake, the Internet. This is what the folks at Grammarphobia plausibly say: 2016, the language scholar Stephen Goranson of the Duke University Libraries managed to confirm what had previously been only conjecture: The source of “jitney” was jetnée, an African-American word, via the French or Creole spoken in Louisiana, for jeton, French for “token.” 
Goranson cites a ditty described in a 1915 issue of the Literary Digest as “a little catch popular with the Louisianian French-Speaking Negro”:

“Mettons jetnée danz il trou / Et parcourons sur la rue— / Mettons jetnée—si non vous / Vous promenez à pied nou! This may be freely translated: Put a jitney in the slot / And over the street you ride; / Put a jitney—for if not / You’ll foot it on your hide.”

The 1915 article suggests that jetnée/“jitney” was coined by Southern blacks to mean a nickel, and was influenced by French jeton or jetton.

Now for the news. As Goranson says, “The following newly reported discovery appears to confirm such an origin by giving—in an African-American newspaper in 1898—a transitional form.”

Here he cites an article, published in January 1898 in the Illinois Record, headlined “Spingfield South-End Happenings”:

“What little jetney coachman on S. 6th street has such a big head he cant put on the coachman’s hat he only wears the coat with brass buttons?”

Goranson adds: “Note association with coach as well as (presumably) coin (or token), of little worth.”

[Old sheet music covers.] 
Slang dictionaries say that at the turn of the century, “jitney” (sometimes spelled “gitney”) meant either five cents or a nickel, the fare to ride minibuses at the time.
All of this made sense to me. Both my grandmother and mother attended the same school when they were kids. The jitney lunches were established in my mom's time and I'd remembered her telling me that the lunches cost a nickel when she was a student.

The Grammarphobia folks continue: the early 20th century, the term was being used adjectivally to refer to the minibuses themselves... 
...the next step in the evolution of “jitney”—as a noun used attributively (that is, adjectivally) to mean cheap or shoddy or inferior. 
The site's article on jitney lunches came in response to a reader who wondered how lunches at his wife's country school had acquired that name. Grammarphobia concludes:
As for those hot dogs served at your wife’s country school once a month, we imagine the meal was referred to as a “jitney lunch” either because it was cheap or uninspiring or because it was delivered by a jitney.
Dana was a city school. But I loved those cheap meals...and now I know why they were called Jitney Lunches.

[Blogger Mark Daniels is pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]

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