Walter Scott, Literary Bad-Ass

Raeburn's portrait of Scott, courtesy of Wikipedia.
Raeburn’s portrait of Scott, courtesy of Wikipedia.
I love Sir Walter Scott, but I think I’m the only person who bothers to read him any more. Scott was an innovator, lawyer, writer, scholar and not-so-astute businessman who changed the shape of literature as we know it. And yet most people have no idea why he is such a literary bad-ass. They think he’s important only because he wrote Ivanhoe–you know, that story about that Saxon knight who fell in love with that Jewish girl and fought against those Norman overlords in medieval England. But Scott is really so much more than this one story, which is not even his best novel.

How do you teach a classroom of students that it’s worth while cultivating the patience and skill, and yes, the vocabulary–Scott uses a good deal of Scots dialect in his dialogues, and most good editions of his Scottish novels contain glossaries–to read Scott’s novels? It’s a hopeless cause, but I’m not going to let that stop me. (One blogger who also hasn’t let it stop her is Sydney, who posted on Waverley in her blog, which you can find here: “”>)

Here’s a little tidbit for you: Scott didn’t start out writing novels. His first success came with poetry. That wonderful quote that goes “Oh what a tangled web we weave/When first we practice to deceive” and that most of us attribute to Shakespeare? That was Scott (Marmion). He was really big stuff in the first few years of the nineteenth century. But just when he was really beginning to settle into his popularity as a poet (and this was at a time when poetry was a big deal; think Wordsworth, Blake, Coleridge), Byron hit the scene, and Scott realized he had become outmoded and upstaged in just a couple of years. So, being multi-talented, he switched to writing novels, and thank heavens he did. His last collection of poems was published in 1817, and it was entitled Harold the Dauntless. I think we can say it was probably a good thing he switched to prose. By the same token, Byron never wrote a novel (although we might say that Don Juan is kind of a novel), so Scott wins the literary-decathlon award of his day.

More importantly, Scott’s novels changed the face of literature. First of all, he used dialect freely (something he borrowed from the Irish novelist Maria Edgeworth and which Mark Twain would use in Huck Finn, to the confusion and disgust of generations of American students), which invested his characters with life-like realism and linguistic freedom, and secondly, under his hand, novels gradually assumed the shape that we recognize today as the Victorian novel. And sure, Victorian novels might really be “loose, baggy monsters,” as Henry James charged, but try reading 18th-century novels, and you’ll see they are a lot less loose and baggy than they had been. Without Scott, whom nearly every Victorian novelist pays homage to in one form in another, the novel would look a lot different than it does today.

Scott even had the good sense to write a very positive (although unsigned) review of Jane Austen’s novels in the Quarterly Review, which you can read in this blog: Only a Novel. Bear in mind that Scott’s novels exist on the opposite end of the spectrum from Austen’s: Scott takes dramatic, historical events and gives them an everyday feel, while Austen invests quotidian events with a momentous and dramatic aura. Yet different as they are as novelists, Scott can still appreciate and applaud Austen’s work–and this at a time (1815) well before the world had discovered who she was.

Appreciation for Scott may have died off, but historical fiction remains popular. I believe that all historical fiction writers should read Scott, and yet I’d be surprised if many really do. Alfred Hitchcock once said that it was impossible to fully understand film without going back and studying the films of the silent era, but how many directors today really do that? Like Scott, the age of silent movies seems to be disposable, suitable only for libraries, vaults, and graduate school syllabi. This is a real shame, because in tossing Scott, readers miss great novels like The Heart of Midlothian, Waverley, and Redgauntlet.

However, in 2010, the Duke and Duchess of Buccleuch (a name that will sound familiar to Scott readers, if there are any out there) established the Walter Scott Prize for historical fiction. This is a big deal in literary prizes: not only is it among the largest purses for literary achievement at well over $25,000, but it also works to wrench historical fiction out of the realm of consumer literature and place it in the category of serious literature. So hats off to the Duke and Duchess for understanding the value of historical fiction and finding a way to legitimize it.

And hats off, too, to a literary bad-ass extraordinaire–Sir Walter Scott–who may not have single-handedly invented the genre, but who certainly did his part in developing it, while helping to shape the novel as we know it today.

On Films I Could Not Finish

I love films–not as much as I love books, certainly–but I spend a good deal of time watching movies. As with my taste in books, however, I especially like films that reached the zenith of their popularity decades ago. Ask me who won the Academy Award for Best Picture last year (2012), and I’ll have to guess at it; ask about the Oscar winner of 70 years ago, and I’ll have something to say about Mrs. Miniver. So this post is going to be idiosyncratic and esoteric, and I might as well confess it from the get-go. Here are a few movies that I was not able to watch through to the end. I’ll give a brief description of the film, explain why I couldn’t watch it, and leave it up to my readers to point out why I should in fact give said film a second chance.
That being said, here are five films I could not watch through to the end:

1. Most recently, Snakes on a Plane.

If you ignore the completely lame plot and the implausibility of thousands of snakes making it into the cargo department of an airliner, you’ll still end up with a movie that stretches the bounds of belief to the point of breaking, and all that within the first 15 minutes of the film. The movie seems like something that a couple of adolescent boys would come up with if given a budget they didn’t deserve. The sexual and bathroom humor (in a rare stroke of efficiency, these two types of humor were often combined into one sorry attempt at being funny) failed time and time again. In fact, I sat down to watch it with an adolescent boy who pulled the plug on the film after 23 minutes. This film is truly awful, and the only intriguing thing about it is why Samuel L. Jackson consented to appear in such a dog at all. images

2. Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves

I distinctly remember this film when it came out. At that time, my interest in the legend hadn’t been obliterated by too many film and television adaptations, and I looked forward to watching the film on a VHS tape, rented from Blockbuster for the evening. Kevin Costner was easy on the eyes, after all, and what could be better than a retelling of the old, familiar story? images-1 Boy, was I wrong. I couldn’t make it through the first 30 minutes. Costner was woefully miscast; his Robin Hood was so forced it was painful to watch. Unfortunately for me, those brief 30 minutes ruined my ability to watch Robin Hood films in any form, no matter how good the actors–with the exception of Robin Hood: Men in Tights, which I consider a comic tour de force.

3. Topaz
Now, don’t get me wrong: I love Alfred Hitchcock films. I even liked the biopic that came out last year starring Anthony Hopkins and Helen Mirren. Sure, I’ll admit that I must be the only Hitchcock fan who doesn’t love Psycho; I don’t count it among Hitch’s best pictures, certainly not in the same category as Strangers on a Train, Shadow of a Doubt, or Rope. But I simply could not get through Topaz, and I have tried at least three separate times.
41J5052T1VL Something about this film (espionage and action, starring European, not American, actors) put me right to sleep each time. I couldn’t even make it to Hitch’s cameo appearance 30 minutes into the film. As far as I’m concerned, three strikes is plenty; I’ve taken the film off of my list of must-see-to-be-an-educated-film-watcher films.

4. The Avengers
I’m fully aware that this might evoke angry cries from superhero fans, but I just don’t get into superheroes. I find them distant and hard to relate to; my experience on this planet is clearly nothing like that of a superhero, and it’s just too much work for me to try to identify with them. In addition, action movies tend to bore me; either I’m checking my watch to see how long the shoot-em-up scene is lasting, or I actually nod off, unimpressed by the immense explosion and subsequent annihilation of Manhattan Island and all of its inhabitants. Perhaps I am not able to fully suspend my disbelief. That being said, I’m sure that as far as action films go, The Avengers is a fine film. But I was primed to dislike it, because its very name tricked me into thinking it was a remake of the old British spy series. avengers_mr-steed-emma-peelNowhere did I find Mrs. Peel and Steed sneaking about and articulating clever repartees, however, and their absence may have led to my immediate disenchantment with the film, which I stopped watching at about the one-hour mark.(You will notice that my media shot is of the television series, not the film–a clear example of my wayward authorial stubbornness.)

5. Ponyo
Here’s another example like Topaz. I adore Hiyao Miyazaki films. Spirited Away is one of my all-time favorite movies, and I’m pretty crazy about Kiki’s Delivery Service and My Neighbor Totoro. One of my sons actually wore out a DVD of Castle in the Sky by watching it too much. In fact, most members of my family love this guy’s work.images-2 But we could not get through the first five minutes of Ponyo, and I can’t say why, except that it was so strange that we simply couldn’t relate to it. I’ve seen strange animated films before and made the leap into their world, although sometimes it does take work. The Triplets of Belleville, for example, was odd and off-putting in the opening scenes, but I was able to stick with it and come to appreciate it. Ponyo, however, just couldn’t keep me watching after five minutes. Maybe I need some encouragement from some well-meaning readers.

That makes a good list of five. I’ve left off many films here, but this is a start. And, should you think that I am presenting an immutable judgment on these films, please remember that I have only discussed them in an attempt to open up conversation and debate. Perhaps one reason I’ve taken up this topic is because I want to be convinced that these films really are worth watching. On the other hand, maybe they really are dogs and should be left sleeping. I certainly look forward to seeing how other film-goers feel.

The Educated Imagination, part 2

I’m doing a lot of what I call “little writing” these days, probably as a diversion from the bigger task that I should be engaged in–revising an early novel in order to make it publishable. This revision is something that I used to think would happen, if it happened at all, at the request of a publisher/editor. But in light of the decision I’ve made to use Kindle and CreateSpace publishing and sell through Amazon, I need to submit all my work to rigorous self-editing. And so, instead of buckling down and doing this work, which is daunting even to me, a hardened writing teacher, I’m pretty much wasting time by playing around with literary theory–and not even current literary theory, but decades-old theory that no one reads anymore.

It’s the writerly equivalent of cleaning the refrigerator: tumblr_l6ooy56juF1qctkclit takes up time, it’s not completely self-indulgent, and it postpones the moment that you have to sit down and actually write. Like cleaning the refrigerator, no one ever thanks you for what you’re doing, but you feel good about it afterwards.

So here’s the second part of my analysis/review of Northrop Frye’s excellent little book The Educated Imagination, which I put in the same category as C.S. Lewis’s An Experiment in Criticism. I have only a couple of things to point out, the first of which is based on this statement by Frye:

“The fundamental job of the imagination in ordinary life, then, is to produce, out of the society we have to live in, a vision of the society we want to live in. Obviously that can’t be a separated society, so we have to understand how to relate the two.”

This is a rich statement, one which could be examined in the light of desire (for example, “I don’t want to live in 21st-century America; I would rather live in Georgian England, which is why I’m reading this Regency romance”). It could also be examined with a view towards social change (what might have been called, in Frye’s day, “social improvement”), in which we readers are charged with the task of identifying problems in our society or culture and addressing them. But I think the key phrase is this: “we have to understand how to relate the two.” So let me focus on this for a moment in the next paragraph, because I think this is where our society–anti-intellectual as it is–falls very short in the way it addresses literature.

Let’s take a topically popular example of literature: the Game of Thrones series. Many people find it entertaining. I won’t discuss its relative merits or shortfalls, but I will point out that the problem with our consumer culture is that we simply imbibe the story, then file it away. Oh, we might talk about the “Red Wedding” episode at the water cooler (read: Facebook) on Monday morning, but we don’t really stop to figure out how this story, with these characters, and this particular plot, actually fits into the lives we have to lead. My theory is this: when literature is separated from its intrinsic value, when it exists purely as commodity (how many people can we get to buy this book?), it becomes separated from the question of how to relate what we read into how we live. Thus our activity becomes purely escapist reading, which I am not entirely condemning. However, I’d argue that anything we read in this way–be it The Hunger Games or Othello, will lose a great deal of its value. When we consume works simply to be entertained, it’s much like putting filet mignon into a smoothie solely for its protein value or mixing a Taittinger champagne in a wine spritzer. In other words, we lose the real value of the thing in by failing to give it the proper attention. Our culture today encourages this kind of activity, however, and it’s up to us, the serious readers out there, to guard against this tendency.

Frye saves his best statement for the final few pages of the book, a statement that must have sounded as conservative when it was written in the 1960s as it does today, but one which really bears some close consideration:

You see, freedom has nothing to do with lack of training; it can only be the product of training. You’re not free to move unless you’ve learned to walk, and not free to play the piano unless you practice. Nobody is capable of free speech unless he knows how to use language, and such knowledge is not a gift; it has to be learned and worked at…. For most of us, free speech is cultivated speech, but cultivating speech is not just a skill, like playing chess. You can’t cultivate speech, beyond a certain point, unless you have something to say, and the basis of what you have to say is your vision of society.

Frye has got it exactly right: too many people claim their right to free speech without adding anything valuable to our culture and our society. We see this in the political world all the time; pundits, politicians, and, in recent years, media commentators insist on their right to free speech while saying nothing of value. We know this, because no real dialogue ever takes place. In 25 years of being involved in higher education, I’ve never seen a better explanation for the value of education. Frye’s point is this: in order to participate fully in our grand experiment of democracy, we must train ourselves to the task. Yet this training takes time, dedication, and a sense of responsibility, which are things we seem to be short of these days.

So we’ve reached the end of my brief analysis of Northrop Frye’s The Educated Imagination. Next week, I’ll take a look a break from this heavy intellectual stuff and discuss a few films that, despite my best intentions, I was unable to get through. Please check back then!

On Rediscovering Forgotten Books: Northrop Frye’s The Educated Imagination

A couple of years ago, one of my colleagues retired and began cleaning out his office. He had a stack of books on the floor beside his desk, and he invited me over to claim first dibs on any of the books I wanted. Because I teach English and Speech at a community college, taking any of these books, which were clearly left over from my friend’s days in graduate school (back in the late 1960s, I’m guessing) was a monumental indulgence for me: I knew I would not be using them in my composition or speech classes. But I’m a sucker for homeless dogs and books, as I have mentioned in an earlier post, and so I took about ten of them and found places for them on my crowded bookshelves.

One of these books is a small volume called The Educated Imagination, by Northrop Frye. I’m not sure why I picked it out, but it’s probably because I remembered reading Northrop Frye during my own grad school days (late 1980s). Frye is famous for creating archetypal criticism; before there was Joseph Campbell, in other words, there was Northrop Frye. I had never heard of this book, however, and picked it up on a whim.

I didn’t open the book for about a year and a half, but about two months ago, I began to read it. It’s actually a wonderful series of essays. The Preface tells us that it was originally a series of radio programs.
Here’s the really interesting part: the series was called “The Massey Lectures” in honor of a former Governor-General of Canada. That’s pretty cool in and of itself, but because my mind is a magnet for largely unimportant information, I know that The Right Honorable Vincent Massey may have been an important lawyer, diplomat, and Canadian statesman, but he was also the older brother of Raymond Massey–that’s right, the actor who played Lincoln before Daniel Day-Lewis did. masseyThe Masseys were one of the most influential families in Toronto, partly because they owned Massey-Ferguson Tractors. This is all, as I said, largely unimportant, but it does provide some colorful background information for the book.

Here’s a sample of the kind of wisdom that appears quite plainly on the pages of The Educated Imagination. In the second chapter, called “The Singing School” (taken from William Butler Yeats’s poem “Sailing to Byzantium“) Frye explains that literature is a tool for both self-discovery and escapism–at the very same time–although these two things seem to be the opposite of each other: how can one discover one’s place in society while one is actively engaged in forgetting that place by looking at society from the distancing prism of literature? Yet, Frye implies, this double duty is one of the most important functions performed by literature.

However, in the next chapter, called “Giants in Time,” Frye seems to correct his earlier statement by saying that literature is not really escapist after all: “Literature,” he tells us, “does not reflect life, but it doesn’t escape from life or withdraw from life either; it swallows it. And it won’t stop until it’s swallowed everything…. If even time, the enemy of all living things, and to poets, at least, the most hated and feared of all tyrants, can be broken down by the imagination, anything can be.” I had to stop and re-read that statement several times, because for me, a scholar/critic/theorist/writer, this is a ground-breaking idea. Think about it: we writers don’t read or write to escape from life. Rather, we read stories and write stories because we want more of life. We engage in these activities not because we want to escape from life, but because we want to gorge ourselves on life itself. Like No-Face in Hiyao Miyazaki’s film Spirited Away, we want to swallow it all–stories, cultures, history, even time itself–in order to be part of the great conversation that is life as we know it. Spirited_Away__colored__by_DarkKenjie

That is a powerful idea, and one worth pausing over. I’ll be back in a couple of days with a few more comments on the second half of this important and overlooked book.