From the Publishing House to Plattsburgh State
Story by Mike O'Brien
He’s a husband and father of four. He’s also an award winning novelist, and Hollywood screenwriter. He’s certainly accomplished a lot, but now, Russell Banks can add professor at Plattsburgh State University College to his résumé.
For the fall 2005 semester only, Banks, who The Village Voice has referred to as “the most important living white male American on the official literary map,” has been teaching a one-credit course entitled, “Adirondack Bohemia.” The 300-level history course served to educate students on some of the great minds that have passed through the Adirondacks during the last century and a half. Some of these minds include artist Rockwell Kent, Yo-Yo Ma, and renowned psychologists Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung.
Because of his prominence, Banks was approached about teaching the class by Dr. James Rice, associate professor at Plattsburgh State’s History department. As an incentive, Dr. Rice offered Banks the title of Distinguished Visiting Professor. “In exchange, I told him he could come when he wanted and teach what he wanted,” Rice said. Banks’ topic of choice was Adirondack Bohemia.
“The course is very interesting; it’s about intellectuals and artists who’ve been in the Adirondacks, and we’ve been studying why this region attracted them”
“The course is very interesting; it’s about intellectuals and artists who’ve been in the Adirondacks, and we’ve been studying why this region attracted them,” says Bergita Nokaj. Nokaj, one of the 15 enrolled students Banks praises as intelligent, curious, and open-minded, is a senior English major with a minor in History.
While "Adirondack Bohemia," met for just five three-hour sessions in the Special Collections room of PSUC's Feinberg Library, there were a few field trips. The main objective of the class was for each student to develop a research project on one of those studied. Citing the isolation and natural beauty as some of the allure, Banks took the students on field trips to show them just what it is about this region that can get the wheels spinning in the brain. A dual resident of Saratoga Springs and Keene Valley, one of the field trips was to Banks' home.
Before living in Keene, however, Banks had resided in a number of other places. He was born March 28, 1940, in Newton, Massachusetts, and raised in New Hampshire. He has also lived in several other places, including Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where he graduated Phi Beta Kappa in 1967, and the Caribbean island of Jamaica. While Banks never felt the desire to write about New Hampshire or North Carolina, he came to the North Country in 1987 and was inspired to write. "The landscape is attractive and weirdly stirring," he said at a recent book-reading in PSUC's Krinovitz Auditorium. "It's a hard place to live, and it's a hard place to romanticize, but it's not a hard place to love."
"The landscape is attractive and weirdly stirring. It's a hard place to live, and it's a hard place to romanticize, but it's not a hard place to love."
Not only does Banks live in the North Country, but some of his literary characters inhabit the area as well. Four of Banks' novels, as well as several short stories, were set in the Adirondack region. The majority of Rule of the Bone started out in the protagonist's hometown near AuSable Chasm. But the story quickly progressed to Plattsburgh, name dropping locations such as Chi-Booms and the Champlain Centre Mall. Additionally, Cloudsplitter, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, tells the story of an anti-slavery activist in North Elba. The Sweet Hereafter, which revolves around a tragic school bus accident, takes place just outside Lake Placid in the fictional town of Sam Dent.
The Sweet Hereafter was set near Lake Placid, but it was also set in Hollywood. Directed by Atom Egoyan, a film based on the novel was released in 1997, and won the International Critics Award at the Cannes Film Festival on the French Riviera. Banks felt the screenplay was very true to the novel, and he even made a cameo as Dr. Robeson. Banks’ daughter, Caerthan, was also in The Sweet Hereafter as Zoe, one of the leading characters. Another Banks novel with a film adaptation is Affliction, which earned James Coburn an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. As well as writing the screenplay for Jack Keruoac's classic, On The Road, Banks is working on movie adaptations for a few of his other novels, including Rule of the Bone, which is presently in the pre-production stage.
Rule of the Bone and The Sweet Hereafter are just two of the five works Banks shared with the audience at the book-reading on Halloween. He also read excerpts from Cloudsplitter and The Darling, as well as "The Plains of Abraham," a short story that can be found in The Angel on the Roof. With each book, he adopted a different character, each with a different tie to the Adirondack region.
Whether he temporarily adopted the persona of a cocky lawyer passing through Sam Dent, a fourteen-year-old runaway living with a biker gang above a video store, or the son of a former abolitionist, Banks' talent was apparent, as his voice literally changed with each different reading. Each character Banks chose to highlight represented a different perspective on the Adirondacks, be it an outsider, local, or current resident looking back on her former life in the African country of Liberia.
“He’s very inspiring. He’s so successful and lives in Keene, so he kind of fits into the Adirondack Bohemia theme,” Nokaj says. While Banks was reading excerpts from his books, it became clear what makes him an authority on the great minds of the Adirondacks. He is one of them himself.
you read any of Russell Banks’ books? Well, what are you waiting for?!
|Copyright © 2001-2005 All Points North. All Rights Reserved|