Category Archives: History

New Feature: Book Reviews

The title is a misnomer of sorts: most contemporary book reviews, I’ve noticed, are little more than marketing ploys designed to get you to buy the book they’re reviewing. If the reviewer is quite brave, the review might actually critique the book, but the point remains the same: to weigh in on a book that has grabbed, or wants to grab, the attention of a large body of readers.

That is not my goal in writing book reviews.

Am I alone in wailing and moaning the lost art of reading? Certainly not. Yet I am advocating here a certain kind of reading, a way of reading which demands thoughtful yet emotional responses to a book. This kind of reading and critiquing is not systematic, like a college paper; it is not formulaic and profit-generating, like a Kirkus book review; and it is certainly not aimed at gaining a readership for a book, or for this blog, either, for that matter. I am simply modeling the behavior I would like to see in other readers. I want to log my emotional and intellectual responses to certain books, to join or create a critical discussion about the the works I’m reading. Some of these works will be current, but many more will be older. As I used to tell my literature students, I specialize in works written by long-dead people. Long mesmerized by the works from the nineteenth century and before, I have, one might say, a severe case of century deprivation.

But today I am starting with a book by Susan Sontag, The Volcano Lover: A Romance. Published in 1992, it is a historical novel set in Naples, Italy, at the end of the eighteenth century, focusing on Sir William Hamilton and his second wife Emma, destined to become the mistress of Horatio Nelson.

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Image from Wikipedia

Let me say that I have never read many of Sontag’s essays, and now I feel I don’t really have to, because this book seems in many ways much more a essay than a novel. There’s a good story in the lives of Sir William, Lady Hamilton, and Lord Nelson, but Sontag pushes this story into the background, eclipsing it by allowing her narrator’s cynical distance to diminish the reader’s ability to connect with the characters and events portrayed in the novel. Sontag gets in the way of the story a great deal too much. Egotism has no place in the act of telling a story; unfortunately, this lesson is something many writers are slow to learn, and indeed, some writers never learn it at all.

The true protagonist of the novel emerges only in the last eight pages. Sontag has had her revenge on the prurient reader who has picked up this novel only to delve into the lurid details of one of the most famous threesomes in British history. She pulls out a minor character, one that has had only the most fleeting reference given her, and gives her some of the best scenes to narrate. By playing hide-and-seek games with her story in this way, Sontag regrettably implodes her own narrative.

In the end, Sontag is much too clever a story-teller, and this hurts her novel–irreparably, in my view. There is one sentence in the novel that I think is worthy of remembering, however. Describing Sir William long after her own death (yes, Sontag does this, time-hopping with impunity, apparently), his first wife describes him like this in a single-sentence paragraph: “Talking with him was like talking with someone on a horse” (376). That’s a clever description, and I will give Sontag her due by calling attention to it.

In the end, though, I am left feeling frustrated and annoyed by The Volcano Lover. I have no idea how it can be construed as a romance, just as I have no idea why this novel, with its sly undercurrent of critical attitudes–towards the characters, the actions, and perhaps even the very nature of novel-writing–should hold a reader’s attention. Sontag’s work, described on the jacket as “a book of prismatic formal ingenuity, rich in speculative and imaginative inventiveness and alive with delicious humor,” is in reality a self-absorbed narrative, filled with annoying commentary, strained attempts at originality, and a smug disregard for its readers’ desire to like the book they’re reading.

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How I Spent My Winter Vacation

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It has been a long, dark winter for many of us. The key to surviving such bleak periods is keeping busy, and I am lucky to have found an absorping, yet perhaps a pointless, task. A project fell into my lap, and to explain how it got there, I have to go back to a very dark time indeed: Election Day.

In those days after the Election, I, like many other people, struggled to come to grips with a president who had not won the popular vote, who represented the very things that I have come to despise about my country, and who was, in short, an embarrassing representation of the intellectual and cultural vacuity that threatens the United States. I was in a dark place. I clutched at straws for salvation. One of the things I found online was a fine essay that I forgot to bookmark, which is now lost to me. But in that essay was a reference to the French writer Léon Werth, to whom Antoine St. Exupéry had written a moving dedication in The Little Prince.

My lost essay referred to Werth’s book 33 Days, which recounted the author’s harrowing journey to escape the German occupation of France in 1940. The book, it seems, was lost until 1992 and only translated into English in a few years later. (You can buy the book here, at Melville House Press.) After reading about Werth, I became interested in his second novel, Clavel Soldat (in English, Clavel the Soldier) which was published to some national acclaim in 1919.

I looked for an English translation, but could not find one, so I had my son, a student at Michigan State University, check out the original French version (which had to come out of “Deep Storage”–the very phrase sends shivers of excitement down this scholar’s spine). When at last he handed the book to me, held together with a string, and I held it in my hands, I was in for a shock: the pages had never been cut.

I knew what this meant well enough. No one, despite its presence in the MSU Library 20170402_163630from August 22, 1949, to the present day, had ever read this copy of the book. I now had a thorny ethical dilemma to resolve. Was it right for me to cut the pages, even if that meant that I would in all probability harm the book, perhaps destroying it? Like any other scholar, I respect the sanctity of the written word. And yet books are meant to be read, aren’t they? If I refrained from reading the book, wasn’t I doing the worst disservice possible to Léon Werth, by not reading a book over which he had labored? After all, I’ve done my own share of writing things no one can be bothered to read; I know how easy, perhaps inevitable, it is for a writer to become invisible. Looking at it from that perspective, I realized that I had no choice. I was compelled to read this book, to rescue it, at least temporarily, from complete obscurity.

Yet I was disturbed by the need to cut the pages, because it seemed somehow like a wanton act of destruction. And so I decided on a compromise of sorts. Though I am not a translator by any means, I can get by (je peux me débrouiller) in French, having majored in it in college some two thousand years ago. The last literary work I had translated was a mere twenty pages of  Mongo Beti’s Ville Cruel, which I had to do back in graduate school, but it was a cold, dark winter, Trump had been elected president, and I had to find something to keep me from succumbing to existential despair. It seemed clear to me that I was called on by some strange cosmic force to translate this novel into English, if only to prove that one person, at least, had read it.

And so I embarked on my translating work. I began some time after Thanksgiving, and each day I translated a few pages. It became a habit as well as a self-imposed duty. I used a cartridge pen (and at least 30 ink cartridges) to write by hand in a spiral notebook, in order to slow down the process of reading just enough to allow me some deliberation about wording. I relied on my very old Harrap’s French-English dictionary, a wonderful bookstand from A+ Bookstand with which to prop it up, a utility knife lent to me by my husband to cut the pages, and a total of three spiral notebooks. I resorted to on-line dictionaries as well when I came across difficult phrases.

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It was only when I was a third of the way through the translation that I began to suspect that no one had ever translated Clavel Soldat into English before. After all, 33 Days had only been translated in the mid 1990s; perhaps this novel had escaped the notice of international readers. I emailed the British Library to see if their copy was in English, as it was listed online; three days later, they emailed me back to say that it was, in fact, in French. At the moment, as I write this blog, I believe that I am the first person to attempt to translate Clavel Soldat into English.

Yesterday, I finished my first round of translating Clavel the Soldier. The task has taught me a great deal, even though I’m not quite sure what I’m supposed to do with the translation (after I’ve done my best to polish it). Through translating Werth’s novel, I’ve obviously learned a lot about World War I. I’ve also picked up a great deal of out-of-the-way information–for example, Peter Kropotkin is now my hero, although I’d never heard of him before. And I’ve learned that our age does not by any means have a corner on the market of despair and cynicism. Most of all, however, I’ve learned about patience, about the art of slinging words together as well as you can to communicate with a reader, and, more important than anything else, about the need to engage in creative acts even during the darkest times, even when you think that you might be the only person in the world who will ever acknowledge or celebrate them.

That’s a lot to take away from one simple winter project. As I said, I’m not sure what will become of my translation of Clavel Soldat, but I am very grateful to have discovered the novel and to have done my part, however fruitless, to bring new readers to it. It has been a humbling but enriching experience, and I look forward to refining the translation in the months to come. After all, winter is over. Spring is just beginning.

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Could Capitalism Be the Enemy?

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Earth Day 1971 Poster, from Wikipedia entry on “Pogo”

Like many other people these days, I’m asking a lot of questions, and I’m not finding too many satisfying answers. But that doesn’t matter. We should all be suspicious of quick—and satisfying—answers. While it might produce a kind of temporary euphoria, the tendency to try to solve our problems quickly and neatly is precisely what seems to have landed the world in this precarious position, with climate changes staring us in the face as we confront unprecedented human migration across increasingly hostile borders. It is a scary place to be.

One question I’ve been asking is this: could capitalism, with its emphasis on constant growth and acquisition of wealth, be the evil spirit lurking behind this state of affairs? This is a difficult question to consider, and it’s likely that few people will be brave enough to confront and admit such a question. (For curious readers, here is an article in last week’s New Yorker that explains, at least in part, why new ideas and self-criticism meet such resistance.)  But it’s worthwhile to lay out a few arguments for this menacing explanation, even if not many people take the time to consider it.

First of all, capitalism, with its emphasis on garnering profit, depends on constantly expanding market shares. It doesn’t work in a static environment; in order for a capitalist economy to function well, it must grow. And yet, as any observant person realizes, constant growth simply isn’t sustainable. Eventually the market place becomes saturated. When that happens, there are few options for the capitalist enterprise: either it expands its market—in which the same thing will happen a few years, or decades, later—or it works to cut out competitors and appropriate their growth and their profit. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist, or an economist, to determine that this process isn’t feasible for long-term stability in a society dedicated to equity and the pursuit of happiness.

And that brings up the second problem with capitalism as it has developed. The acquisition of profit and material goods seems to be insufficient for the kind of capitalists, the captains of industry, we have created in recent years. In other words, the most successful capitalists have become so wealthy that it is ludicrous to suppose that they are intent on gathering still more money, or luxuries, for themselves. How many mansions are necessary for a person’s, even a family’s, happiness? Is it really necessary for Mark Zuckerberg to own 700 acres of prime Hawaiian land—and to sue longtime landowners to make sure that his privacy on this new piece of property is inviolable? One theory about the tendency of the super-wealthy to engage in this kind of action this states that capitalism’s great heroes and heroines garner not only wealth for themselves, but happiness as well. And, since happiness is not as easy to gauge as material wealth, the best way to determine whether one is happy is to compare oneself to those who are not happy. This, in essence, is what capitalism does: it takes happiness away from people in order to create a sense of happiness in the capitalist, who, numb to the thrill of wealth and plenty, cannot determine whether he is actually happy unless he can be sure that there are others who have been made unhappy by his own acquisitive actions. This view of capitalism presents it in a horrifying, sordid light. It goes something like this: once their quest for great wealth has met with success, capitalists create another quest for themselves: that of acquiring the happiness of others. This kind of theorizing leads to a truly disconcerting question: What if the “pursuit of happiness” mentioned in the Declaration of Independence, and so dear to every American citizen, has become a literal pursuit, in which the happiness of others becomes fair game for pursuing? This frightening scenario, in which capitalists resemble Dementors more than anything else, may well be taking place in our society.

But we need not enter the world of Harry Potter to find a third reason to reexamine capitalism in our time: it appears to be antithetical to the idea of ecological conservation. I could argue this carefully, in a step-by-step demonstration of the ways in which capitalism abuses the natural environment, but this is quite unnecessary, with stories like Standing Rock, Line 5, the Kalamazoo River oil spill, fracking, and other items in the news. We all know that big business cares little about the natural resources it uses, regarding these resources like factory machinery as it tries to figure out a way to produce still more oil for an ever-growing market. The argument that capitalism stands in opposition to safeguarding our environment has undoubtedly been made before, and it is unnecessary to go into it at length here.

Instead, I would like to offer a fourth reason that capitalism may be the enemy. It depends on competition, maintaining that competition brings out the best in people. But even Darwin, as this article in The Guardian points out, believed that cooperation was at least as  important in evolution as competition.

I have little hope that I can change anyone’s mind about capitalism. Most Americans cling to their belief that it offers us, and the world at large, the best way to live—period. Besides, changing our ideology would be too great a task to undertake.

Or would it?

As we encounter more and more crises, sooner or later we will have to face the fact that Americans are not always the good guys, as we have been taught to believe. Ideology is a difficult veil to penetrate—in fact, it may be impossible to penetrate the veil at all, and we may have to be satisfied with shifting it aside from time to time to try to catch a mere glimpse of the truth. Denying the efficacy and value of capitalism is a scary proposition, and doing so necessitates that we decide what will take its place—another scary proposition. It will take some time to reach the point where we can face these difficult ideological problems. But I believe we will get there. For now, let’s start by admitting that the old comic strip from 1971 was right: “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”

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Making Art in Troubled Times

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Image from the webpage of the Ashmolean Museum: http://britisharchaeology.ashmus.ox.ac.uk/highlights/alfred-jewel.html 

I will admit it: after the election in November, I succumbed to a sense of defeat. What is the point, I moaned, if autocracy and tyranny are not merely accepted but welcomed by the masses, if the great ideal of a democratic country is systematically dismantled before our eyes? Why bother with anything, much less with the last fifty pages of a novel that no one will ever read?

At the time, I was working through the last part of a story I’d begun a couple of years earlier, and I was ready to give it up, because, well, why would I finish it when the world as I know it is coming to an end? (My feelings arose not only because of the U.S. election results or the ensuing realization that a foreign power had tinkered with our “free elections,” but also because of the global rise of a dangerous populism, coupled with imminent global climate change.)

But a good friend gave me some advice, and I soldiered on and completed the draft. Right now, I am steadily working on it, revision after revision. And I am doing this not because I think my novel can change the world. It certainly won’t; it won’t be read by more than a hundred people, and that’s if I’m lucky.

But this short essay is not about the art of writing without readers; I will deal with that in a future post. For now, all I want to do is to encourage everyone who reads this blog to go on and continue their artistic activities. I say this not as a writer, or even as a reader, but as a scholar. And I have a very simple reason for doing so.

Art is the residue left by human culture. When civilizations disappear, when lives and institutions have crumbled into the dust, what remains is the art they created. Some of this art arises from genius, like the works of Mozart and Shakespeare; some of it comes from normal people, like the rest of us. But we need it all–every last scrap of it, not only the wonderful pieces that make us cry with joy or sadness, but even the average and ungainly works of art, because even bad art is an expression of human experience, and in the end, it is the experience of being human that binds us together on this lonely little planet.

So go ahead with your art. Draw, paint, weave, write, compose or play music. Do not worry that you are fiddling as Rome burns. Rome will, ultimately, burn–history tells us that. But what is left behind are wonderful murals that will take your breath away, mosaics, epic poems, statues and monumental structures. Don’t worry about whether your art will be appreciated; it is the act of making it that is important, not whether or not it is celebrated. Think of that lonely monk who produced Beowulf; he  was probably scared shitless that his Anglo-Saxon culture would be erased by the next Viking invasion, but he fought off this feeling of futility and kept going, thank goodness. Remember his small act of courage, try to emulate it, and above all, keep going.

Do not be afraid of working in the darkness; you may not be able to dispel it, but your work could provide light for others, not only now, but in the future as well.

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After the Apocalypse

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I am no  stranger to political loss. I ran a decent campaign for state representative in 2012, but my opponent, a well-funded Republican, beat me handily (58% to 42%). But today’s loss is different. This morning, we all woke up to a world that is not the same place it was yesterday. I have to wonder whether this feeling of grief and horror is how my elders felt on November 22, 1963. Something important, that was once beautiful though imperfect, is broken, perhaps irreparably.

I do not want to point fingers, to wail and moan about the coming years, to wring my hands with worry. I want to get past my feelings of anger and hostility, my disgust with an electorate so ill-educated and short-sighted that it has elected a person monumentally unfit for the highest office in the land. I want to put aside my fear for my children, my guilt for not doing enough to prevent this.

Maybe I’ll get there  tomorrow, or the next day.

Not today.

Today, all I can see is an America that is sick and dying. Today, I can only see that democracy is not the best form of government when a populace persists in selfish, xenophobic, and inhumane beliefs. Most painful of all, today I have to admit that the country I loved (despite my criticisms of it through the years) is a fiction, a mere chimera.

Today, I mourn for everyone who will be touched by this tragedy, and they will number in the millions. And to my readers across the sea and above and below the border, today I apologize for my country.

Today, I am ashamed to be an American.

Tomorrow, the resistance begins. Who will lead it? What form will it take? We will find out the answers to those questions when the shock and disbelief wear off, when the sharp edge of grief subsides. And until then, we can console ourselves with the knowledge that we will not give up fighting for what’s good, and decent, and right. Because that’s how Americans–true Americans, those who are not motivated by greed and fear–act.

Here, then, is my battle cry: I will not give up.

 

 

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Film and Classical Music

One of the things I miss about teaching now that I’m retired is the ability to explore ideas and themes with others. I often compared teaching–at least, teaching at its best–to driving a tour bus. Sometimes you stop the bus and point out some interesting things (and in fact that is pretty much your purpose in life as a teacher), but often people on the bus know some pretty interesting stuff, too, and teaching at its best is when everyone starts sharing their information and their ideas. That part of my life still exists, but in a much smaller form, and I can’t rely on a job to make it happen any longer.

Hence this post. If I were still teaching, I’d be formulating a course on Film and Music, much as there are courses on Film and Literature, or Film and Shakespeare, or Film and Madness. But since I’m not planning on teaching such a course, I thought it would be fun to make a list, the kind you see on Buzzfeed, or even better, on InterestingLiterature (a great site, and not just because I had a guest post on it once) that highlighted some interesting movies that focus on classical music. Fair warning, however: some of these movies are not readily available, and only one of them is well known.

  • We’ll begin with the most famous movie in the list: Amadeus. Now, don’t get me wrong; I loved the movie when it came out in the 1980s, just as everyone else did. But I found it a bit dull and overacted when I watched it again a few months ago. Certainly it is a long movie, but it is visually spectacular. The music is excellent, too. If you haven’t seen this film, it might be good to start here, if only because everyone will expect you to have seen it.
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Image from https://rovingpsyche.wordpress.com/2015/05/13/cinema-review-amadeus/, which provides an excellent review of the film.

 

  • Here’s a little gem that fewer people have seen than Amadeus: It’s called Nannerl, La Soeur de Mozart, or, in English, Mozart’s Sister. I found the portrayal of a very young Mozart and his sister in their family setting both refreshing and appealing. The Mozart in Amadeus can be quite bratty and silly, but in this film, such antics are easier to take, because here Mozart is ten or so years old. Of course, the film centers on Nannerl, Mozart’s older sister, whose musical gifts are acknowledged but circumscribed by her father. The intrigue portrayed in the film is fanciful yet appealing, and the music is, once again,  excellent.
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Image from a revew by Ty Burr which appeared in Boston.com

  • Mention Henry Purcell at a cocktail party, and you’ll receive blank looks. Most Americans don’t know that Henry Purcell was the first really great English composer. The film England, My England provides a view of Purcell’s life in a creative, time-tripping way: focusing on the attempts of a 1960s playwright to create a drama based on Purcell’s life, it spins off into that life itself, returning at times to its trendy 1960s setting. The musical scenes are pleasing, and the portrayal of Purcell (by Michael Ball) is convincing, drawing the viewer into the world of Baroque England.
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Image from Imdb.com

 

  • Emily Watson is one of my favorite actresses, so it makes sense that I would put the film Hilary and Jackie on this list, but I need to warn my readers that this film can be deeply troubling. It deals with Hilary and Jacqueline du Pre, musical prodigies who emerged on the classical music scene  in the 1960s, Hilary as a flautist and Jacqueline as a cellist. Be warned: Jacqueline died at the age of 42, having suffered from multiple sclerosis, which cut short her career when symptoms arose in 1973. The film is grueling at times, and not just because of the onset of the disease. And it is controversial as well, since it presents an unflattering view of Du Pre at times. But it provides a fascinating look at this important 20th-century musician, whose work has been described  as both ground-breaking and definitive.
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Image from Imdb.com

 

  • I’ve saved the most unusual film for the end. In fact, the only way I was able to watch this film was by streaming the entire thing on YouTube. This film may not be for everyone: it follows the early life and career of Carlo Broschi, who took the name “Farinelli” when he appeared on the early 18th-century stage as a castrato singer. But it is an excellent film about a difficult subject. Like the  other films on this list, it is largely fictionalized, but the music is interesting and appealing, and the story itself so unusual as to be intriguing. To recreate the sound of a castrato’s voice, the voices of a female soprano and a male countertenor were digitally merged, resulting in this amazing aural amalgam. It is a unique and gorgeous sound–but you might want to compare it to this rendition of Handel’s aria (“Lascio chi’io panga”) by the male soprano Philippe Jaroussky, which relied on no such digital manipulation. Which is better? Add your comment below to join in the conversation. And please let me know if you know of other movies I should add to this list.
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Image from YouTube

 

 

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On Lost Voices

A few days ago, an article appeared in The Chronicle of Higher Education by Carlin Romano that discussed H.J. Jackson’s book Those Who Write for Immortality. Jackson’s book talks about literary fame and how it occurs, and Romano’s article introduces some interesting, and troubling, ideas. For example, what if, as Jackson suggests, we remember Wordsworth and Coleridge not because they are eminently good poets, but because their poetry is easier to anthologize and illustrate than the works of Robert Southey or Leigh Hunt? Many good writers fall by the wayside, Romano seems to argue, simply because they are not convenient to read.

This makes me question my own work as a teacher in years past. One of the things I’m proud of is my attempt to help my students understand Romantic poetry and feel comfortable with it. Of course, I emphasized Wordsworth and Coleridge, because they are so accessible and so easy to identify with, considering their love of simplicity and Nature with a capital “N.” What’s not to like about that, after all? But recently, while reading the letters of Charles Lamb, a literary figure who was once loved for his essays and is now only known for his pseudonym (any crossword addict knows that “Lamb’s alias” is “ELIA”), I discovered a rebuttal of all the nature-worship perpetrated by Wordsworth and Coleridge.

Charles Lamb

Charles Lamb

Of course, any student of Romantic literature will remember lines like “Henceforth I shall know / That Nature ne’er deserts the wise and pure; / No plot so narrow, be but Nature there, /…and keep the heart / Awake to Love and beauty!” (“This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison” by S.T. Coleridge). This is also the poem in which Coleridge addresses Lamb himself (much to Lamb’s chagrin) not once but three times as “My gentle-hearted Charles,” telling him at one point, “thou has pined  / And hungered after Nature, many a year, / In the great City pent, winning thy way / With sad and patient soul…” (28-31). Lovely as those lines are, there was at least one reader who was unimpressed by them. Lamb himself wrote to Coleridge on August 6, 1800, “For God’s sake (I never was more serious) don’t make me ridiculous any more by terming me gentle-hearted in print, or do it in better verses.” Apparently, Coleridge heeded Lamb’s plea, and never again addressed him in a poem.

Five months later, Lamb writes to William Wordsworth an interesting, chatty letter in which he brings up his view of nature, which runs counter to all Romantic ideology, ending in a paean to city life worthy of Dickens or Thackeray some fifty years later: “Separate from the pleasure of your company, I don’t much care if I never see a mountain in my life. I have passed all my days in London, until I have formed as many and intense local attachments as any of you mountaineers can have done with dead Nature. The lighted shops of the Strand and Fleet Street; the innumerable trades, tradesmen, and customers, coaches, waggons, playhouses; all the bustle and wickedness round about Covent Garden; the very women of the Town; the watchmen, drunken scenes, rattles; life awake, if you awake, at all hours of the night; the impossibility of being dull in Fleet Street; the crowds, the very dirt and mud, the sun shining upon houses and pavements, the print shops, the old bookstalls, parsons cheapening books, coffee-houses, steams of soups from kitchens, the pantomimes–London itself a pantomime and a masquerade–all these things work themselves into my mind, and feed me, without a power of satiating me. The wonder of these sights impels me into night-walks about her crowded streets, and I often shed tears in the motley Strand from fulness of joy at so much life. All these emotions must be strange to you; so are your rural emotions to me.” Lamb’s letter continues to contrast his view of the poetic with Wordsworth’s, ending, “So fading upon me, from disuse, have been the beauties of Nature, as they have been confinedly called; so ever fresh, and green, and warm are all the inventions of men, and assemblies of men in this great city.”

Old Covent Garden Market, by Georg Johann Scharf, 1825 (source: Wikipedia)

Old Covent Garden Market, by Georg Johann Scharf, 1825 (source: Wikipedia)

This passage is more than striking; it’s a gobsmacking refutation of the Nature-worship that I have, for many years, erroneously taught was part and parcel of the literary landscape of early 19th century Britain. So here’s a public apology to all my students, with this little piece of cautionary advice: H.J. Jackson may well be right. Rather than teach the old stand-bys, we ought to be engaging in our own recovery projects to introduce more readers to the jewels that we’ve let slip through our fingers.

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Postscript to Previous Post

Image from Wikipedia

Image from Wikipedia

Tolkien, the story goes, wrote the first words of The Hobbit in the pages of a student examination blue book. He had been grading examinations as a form of part-time work, and, exhausted by the monotony of the task, he celebrated his discovery of a blank page in the book, untouched by the student’s ink, by writing the words “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.”

I am far luckier than Tolkien. I received the following essay from a student (who gave me permission to post it here) as a final exam. It is a lovely way to end my final semester at the community college where I teach. Thank you, Cari Griffin, for summing up my attitude towards the study of literature in such a humorous and appropriate way. Indeed, I am a very lucky teacher. After all, a doctor is only as good as his or her companions.

 

 

27 April 2015

“Doctor” Shumway:

For nearly two years, I have been your companion as we have traveled through space and time. Your Tardis is not a blue Police box; it is your classroom, and you are “The Doctor”; a madwoman with a YouTube account. Though there was never a fez involved, exploring foreign lands, examining history, and best of all, discussing literature has allowed for, myself, at least, great understanding of the space-time continuum as it pertains to the literary world.

There can be no question that our travels, having begun in September of 2013, frequently took us to England. I think we can both agree, it is our favorite stop. Whether it has been a visit with the Anglo-Saxons, an exploration of medieval England, several visits with our favorite playwright, William Shakespeare, or an extensive amount of time spent in 19th century Great Britain, each visit afforded us an opportunity to see British history and its inhabitants in a new way. We lacked only our tea while we observed an Abbey, paid a visit to Thornfield Hall, or grasped the devastation of World War I.

We were not always in England. We’ve been to France with a philosopher, to Spain within American, and Germany to witness the beginning of the Romantic Movement. We saw 17th century Turkey through the eyes of an English woman, visited Japan at the turn of the 20th century, and briefly stopped in Imperial Russia. The authors we have covered acted as conductors, providing the means for us to travel. Their voices allowed us to see into their worlds, to spend time in their society, to have a momentary glimpse of a fixed point in time. We have seen revolutions, oppression, and inequality in many of the places we have visited, but always, the voices of those authors who have guided us cried out for equality, rallied for peace, and asked us to question, alongside them, our purpose within our community, our country, and our society, just as they did the same in theirs. Together, on our journey, we have celebrated the individual, applauded the growth of the female author, recognized brilliance, and felt the influence of those long ago voices within our modern society.

It was not just the authors that we met. We examined the world around them. We studied the era in which they lived: we viewed their art, heard their music, and, ultimately, questioned the validity of their place within the literary canon. Perhaps we did not always embrace them as friends, but we did not leave as foes. No. Our relationship with these authors, however brief, brought us a little closer to our fellow man, allowed us see into his or her own world through their eyes, and, to realize they are very much like us, though they lived in a far different world than the one we inhabit now.

As our journey nears its end, you ask, “why?” I interpret this as, “why take the journey? “My answer is quite simply this: we must. For anything less than a madman in a blue box landing in our backyard, we have no other way to reach across time and space, to look at a moment in man’s history, and have an opportunity to see that moment through a different set of eyes. Yes, Doctor Shumway, literature is our Tardis through space and time. We have an obligation to not only understand our place within our own culture, in history, but our fellow man’s place and his culture as well. After all, “We’re all stories, in the end” (The Eleventh Doctor).

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My Life with Ernest (Part I)

About three years ago, after watching Julie and Julia and hearing a friend’s account of The Year of Living Biblically, I decided I was up for what I now call a self-induced pointless project, or SIPP for short. You know what I mean: a SIPP is a personal goal of some sort that isn’t based on getting healthy (like losing weight or training for a marathon), being creative (like writing a screenplay), or acquiring a skill (like learning to play piano). It took me a few weeks to figure out what I would take on as my SIPP, and then it came to me in a rush of insight: I would read all of Ernest Hemingway’s works in a year.

Well, of course, it didn’t pan out that way. Other things got in my way. In about the second month of my SIPP, I got completely sidetracked by running for state legislature (otherwise known as a PEPO–a pointless expression of political optimism), and that took up the better part of a year. (How that happened and what I learned during my campaign will become fodder for another post some day, I’m sure.) But now I find that this old SIPP has come back to me, this time in the form of a WIPP (Work-Induced Pointless Project): next fall, I’ll be teaching a class on Ernest Hemingway, and I need to prepare myself for the task. It’s going to be quite a challenge, since I am a Victorian scholar by training, but it’s got to be easier than campaigning for public office, so I’m totally up for it.

So, from time to time, I’ll be posting random musings about Hemingway here at the Tabard Inn.

Back when I first started, I began my quest by reading Jeffrey Meyer’s biography of the writer: Hemingway: A Life. I like reading biographies, but I find them unbearably sad, with their insistence on the heartache of living from day to day, month after month, year after year, until death ends all. (I am perhaps the only viewer who cried while watching De-Lovely, a largely forgettable bio-pic of Cole Porter. Don’t even get me started on La Vie en Rose.) I’ll gladly read a biography of any literary figure–Mary Shelley, Jane Austen, the Brontes–or even of a historical figure, like Elizabeth I. But for me, the Ur-Biography will always be Edgar Johnson’s two-volume biography of Dickens, which a friend from graduate school gave me as a gift many years ago. I’m probably dating myself when I write this, but my view is that no one does it better than Johnson, who mixes biographical facts with literary criticism in a thoughtful blend that makes it all look easy.

Unfortunately, Jeffrey Meyer is no Edgar Johnson; Hemingway: A Life turned out to be somewhat informative, but mostly confusing. Dates bled into each other as I worked my way through the chapters. Important events, such as the death of Hemingway’s grandchild, were glossed over, mentioned only once in passing and never picked up again. Through Meyer’s thorough but difficult-to-read biography, however, I was able to develop a basic sense of the body of Hemingway’s work and the shape of his life; predictably, it is monumentally depressing. Hemingway apparently peaked at a young age and then simply repeated the same old ideas again and again, hoping to hit pay dirt once more. (On the other hand, I did find it consoling to think that there are good things about never really peaking at all.) To make matters worse, Meyer seems downright antagonistic to his subject much of the time, which both surprised and confused me: why write a biography of a man, spending hours and hours on researching his life, if one isn’t simply ape-shit bananas over him? I could not answer this question, not even after finishing Meyer’s book, all 300-plus pages of it.

And where am I now in my quest? I’m steadily plowing through Hemingway’s short stories. And there are some beauties: “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber,” “Hills Like White Elephants,” “The Capital of the World.” Those are memorable stories, ones that stick in your head for days after you’ve read them. I was less impressed by “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” which seems too much like self-pitying autobiography. And to be honest, I’m bored by many of the Nick Adams stories, despite the fact that I know they have a huge following. My attitude no doubt owes something to my Brooklyn background. I imagine having a conversation with the young, Nick Adams-era Hemingway, entirely one-sided, in which I tell him, “So, Hem, you went fishing. You caught a trout. Maybe you didn’t. You were mean to some girl. Or she was mean to you. So what? Big deal! Life happens—no need to write a story documenting every detail of your life for some poor schlep of a reader. How would you feel if I made you read a story about my trip to the podiatrist? Or if I made you read about my search for some nice, fresh gefilte fish?” Yet I have to point out that during this excursion into Hemingway country, I’ve discovered a story I never knew, one which has become one of my favorites: “A Canary for One.” This story is an interesting exercise in which a first-person narrator suddenly appears halfway through the story, intruding himself and adding a snappy little ending worthy of Saki (H.H. Munro). Somehow–and I’m not sure how–Hemingway makes that one work well. I find myself wishing Hemingway had written more of these tricky little stories, and fewer of the bullfighting, war-time, or fishing stories.

Stay tuned for more posts on Hemingway and his work as I struggle, as usual, to stay one step ahead of my students.

ernest-hemingway-fishing1

Image from the blog Vintage Culture: http://www.vintageculture.net/ernest-hemingway/

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