An American Mosaic Reviews

In 1990, after founding Free River Press Wolf began a program of writing workshops in Nashville for homeless men and women with the intent of publishing their writing. This led to workshops for farm families and other groups in the region that were eventually featured on CBS Sunday Morning and National Public Radio’s All Things Considered and Morning Edition. Taken from these workshops and beyond, the short stories, poems, and memoirs collected here are as diverse as daily life, offering an abundance of literary Americana focusing primarily on the latter part of the 20th century. Thomas Hart Benton’s mural “America Today” (1932) served as a major influence on the book’s structure; separate sections depict the homeless, the Midwest, the Mississippi River, and the Delta, with each section including a commentary by the editor. The order follows the chronology in which the works were developed. This is an oral history triumph, featuring the voices of the real folk who fight each day to survive their personal struggles. Highly recommended.–Cynde Bloom Lahey, New Canaan Library, CT

Kirkus Reviews
An appealing collection of simple but diverse writings by seldom-heard American voices. A teacher and a former Chicago Tribune columnist, Wolf has amassed selections culled from nine years of conducting writing wor®kshops with amateurs in various rural communities. Wolf hears America singing by recording poems and essays by the homeless, farmers, commune inhabitants, and residents of small river towns—the most common and least represented element in our urban, urbane culture. What weaves these pieces together is a sense of sadness and nostalgia because a way of life is disappearing. Wolf sees the rapid technological advances of the past few decades as increasingly dehumanizing. Jettisoned in its wake, he theorizes, are the thousands of mentally ill homeless, the newly unemployed and impoverished, the low-tech and depressed small-town dwellers, and the abandoned company ghosts of the manufacturing era. Local education has failed in the misery belt “because those driving this society are, as a class, anti-intellectual and unimaginative.” These elegiac themes dominate. The homeless bemoan the lack of decent employment; the farmers recal®l a bucolic past before pesticides and conglomerates—when they were “embraced by the land”; and the children of provincial midwestern towns are eager to leave their homes and dead-end futures. Among the older generation, any machines that don—t improve phones or TVs can only bring trouble. One of the anthology’s standouts is Mary Ann Fels, who graphically describes her decision to break with some of the formal, decor-related wedding traditions of the Amana Church in Iowa, where the wrong haircut earned one excommunication. The old German Board of Trustees were anxious to host the increasingly rare ceremony, but they asked the couple “not to do anything too wild.” None of the contributions will be mistaken for literature, yet the writers have much to say that has not been heard and is worth preserving. A vivid, folk-art look into rarely documented American lives.

Wolf helped found the nonprofit Free River Press to publish the writings of homeless men and women.  He helped nonwriters overcome their inhibitions about writing by conducting “orally oriented” workshops.  These proved to be so successful he widened the circle to include other groups in need of a forum, such as farm families and citizens of small towns.  The resulting poems and personal narratives are authentic, involving, and enlightening.  They do, indeed, create a mosaic, and it captures the frustration and determination of people whose lives are constricted by harsh economic realities.   Homeless men and women write about their lives both before and after they ended up on the streets, and rural life is revealed in all its surprising diversity, demands, satisfactions, and traumas.  Wolf characterizes rural America and the terrain of the homeless as a Third World country and believes that the only way things will improve is if the stories of its people are heard.  Like Walt Whitman and Studs Terkel, Wolf hears America singing, and he wants us all to listen.
—by Donna Seaman

Joseph Warren, Ph.d., English Department, Andrews University
Wolf’s signature contribution to American Letters is that he records the voices overlooked by the vast majority of literary scholars. The custom of literature professors is to read and teach only the titles that appear on the best sellers list.

An American Mosaic: Prose and Poetry by Everyday Folks validates the voices from under the bridge.  The homeless, prison inmates and Delta characters have no concept of first printing, publicity tours and critical reviews.  Their voices accurately describe the deep currents of American life where real people are trying to keep their heads above water as they are swept along to an unknown American destiny.

As a reader, the selections are immediately accessible to all students who hear the ring of truth as the voices of farmers and rural residents cascade downstream in the American experience. Because the poems and prose pieces were not written to capture a share of the vast reader’s market, the untrained authors write authentically as if they are in private conversation with real folks.

American Mosaic is also a great anthology for high school and college writing classes because students can easily pattern the natural rhythmns and tones of everyday people. American Mosaic’s authors are not celebrities, many are not even good writers. Yet what they have written carries a valid reporting of real life. As one student blurted out, “I go to a church exactly like the one in “Church House Blues.

An American Mosaic is a must read and teach for writing and literature teachers desperate to find a text that a diverse student population can relate to. Bob Wolf has captured the very voice of Americans…Americans looking for an anchor in a safe harbor,

Peter Schmidt, Headmaster, St.Bernards Academy, New Jersey
Robert Wolf, editor of American Mosaic, a wonderful collection of poetry, prose, short stories, essays and commentaries by ordinary people whose wisdom and grace are eaily ignored in contemporary American intellectual life, believes that anyone who can tell a story can write one. To prove his point, Wolf has undertaken a life’s work of itinerant writing workshops, going to and settling in with people whose stories illuminate the vitality and struggles of daily life in small towns in rural Iowa, the Mississippi Delta, and river communities along the Mississippi from Iowa to Louisiana. Just as David Isay’s and Stacy Abramson’s powerful “Sound Portraits” on National Public Radio have given voice to a disparate array of unexpected and intriguing characters, Wolf’s writing workshops produce first-person accounts of what it means to be an American–accounts which permit readers to escape the stereotypical portraits of the homeless, the rural poor, and the hidden denizens of small towns in America too frequently proffered by our mass media as truthful representations of American folksiness.
“Fragmentation, I have often thought, is the driving force of our time,” writes Wolf in one of his commentaries in American Mosaic, “far more powerful than any integrating force.” As Executive Director of Free River Press, the sponsor of these writing workshops which produced the book, Wolf has responded to his own critique by making the effort to bring people together, integrating their stories, rituals, and struggles with the sensibilities of readers who may never meet the people who grow the food for our tables, but through American Mosaic are given the opportunity to acknowledge their dignity, courage, and integrity.