Thursday, February 11, 2016

Nibbling the sacred cheese of life with Stephen Crane

Reading Stephen Crane in – not in bulk – in handfuls, in heaps – has been rewarding.  He was an astounding short story writer, with a wide range of subject, tone, and rhetorical flash.  He was moving fast, too.

I have been working on his stories, journalism, hybrid non-fiction, sketches, etc. collected in the Library of America volume of Stephen Crane, a heck of a book.  That edition leads off with the novels and novellas then divides the shorter stuff by time and place, which makes sense for a wandering reporter like Crane – New York City, the Civil War detour, Mexico, Florida, Greece, Cuba, etc., all of which generated good fiction aside from whatever he was writing for newspapers to make a living.

I reconstructed Crane’s books to some degree, regrouping the short stories into The Open Boat and Other Tales of Adventure (1898) and The Monster and Other Stories (1899, with an expanded English edition in 1901).  The former is a terrific book and it is a shame to break it up; the latter, in either form, makes no sense as a book and is best left in pieces.

I took a break from Crane, but the next book will be Wounds in the Rain (1900), stories from Cuba about the Spanish-American War, which Christopher Benfey has said is Crane’s most underrated and underread book.  Looking forward to that.

I skipped the novellas George’s Mother (1896) and The Third Violet (1897).  And I read Crane’s second tiny, original book of poems, War Is Kind (1899).  So that’s the logistical overview.  Anyone have strong positive feelings about those novellas?

As good as the Civil War stories were – as good as almost all of this material is – “The Open Boat” is such a triumph that it casts a dark shadow.  Crane was on his way to Cuba to cover the revolution; the leaky tub full of arms and mercenaries sank in a squall and Crane and three other men found themselves in a boat not designed for such conditions.

Many a man ought to have a bath-tub larger than the boat which here rode upon the sea.  These waves were most wrongfully and barbarously abrupt and tall, and each froth-top was a problem in small boat navigation.  (part I).

The situation is rich in descriptive, metaphorical, and ethical possibilities.  Crane’s great stroke, though, is the duel narration, the way the omniscient narrator, heard above, interacts with the limited point of view of “the correspondent,” who just rows and sleeps  - he “watched the waves and wondered why he was there.”  He can rarely see over the top of the waves, while this other narrator perceives the cosmos.

They are both Crane, that’s the fun, right?  Retrospective, artistic, metaphysical Crane, recollecting in tranquility, and a Crane trapped in a particular moment, a moment that stretches for days, as a rowing machine who also thinks:

“If I am going to be drowned – if I am going to be drowned – if I am going to be drowned, why, in the name of the seven mad gods who rule the sea, was I allowed to come thus far and contemplate sand and trees?  Was I brought here merely to have my nose dragged away as I was about to nibble the sacred cheese of life?”  (part IV)

The omniscient narrator finds that last phrase hilarious.  It is not clear whether Crane-the-rower has as strong a sense of the ridiculous.

Crane and two of his companions survived; one drowned, randomly, utterly arbitrarily.  That man’s death is the great mystery and tragedy, or perhaps comedy, of “The Open Boat.”  Crane wrote two other versions of the story, a piece of reportage (“Stephen Crane’s Own Story”) and a story from the ship captain’s point of view (“Flanagan and His Short Filibustering Adventure”), both of which make the artistry of “The Open Boat” look all the greater.  All three serve as tributes to Billy Higgins, oiler, who died in place of Stephen Crane.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Take care of the little box - Charles Simic's prose poems and knickknacks and whatnots on Joseph Cornell

I have at hand Charles Simic’s little books about Joseph Cornell, Dime-Store Alchemy: The Art of Joseph Cornell (1992).  Cornell is one of classic American eccentrics like Captain Craig.  I think of them as wanderers, although Cornell barely left New York City.

America still waits to be discovered.  Its tramps and poets resemble early navigators setting out on journeys of exploration.  Even in is cities there are still places left blank by the map makers.  (p. 15)

The people who romanticize them, like E. A. Robinson, think of them as geniuses, if only conditions had been right, while Cornell was a genius of a unique sort, and conditions were somehow right.

Somewhere in the city of New York there are four or five still-unknown objects that belong together.  Once together they’ll make a work of art.  That’s Cornell’s premise, his metaphysics, and his religion, which I wish to understand.  ( 14)

Simic’s book is a collection of prose poems about Cornell and his work.  Some are more prose, some more poems.  Some are about Cornell, some from his point of view, some positioned, I don’t know, somewhere else.  If the book were art history, not so many poets – Poe, Nerval, Baudelaire, Dickinson – would show up.

I’ve read that Goethe, Hans Christian Andersen, and Lewis Carroll were managers of their own miniature theaters.  There must have been many other such playhouses in the world.  We study the history and literature of the period, but we know nothing about these plays that were being performed for an audience of one.  (50)

Simic compares Cornell’s boxes to chess problems, fetish objects, “some abacuslike calculating machine” (43).  What is it, what is it?  I know that was my first question when I encountered a Cornell.  Now I know what they are.  They are Cornells.  “Look, they have a Cornell.”  That’s all I say now when I find a new one.

Now in the little box
You have the whole world in miniature
You can easily put it in a pocket
Easily steal it easily lose it

Take care of the little box.  (40)

Part of a poetic poem, that one, Simic’s translation of a Vasko Popa poem.

Sometimes Simic is merely a critic:

Marcel Duchamp and John Cage use chance operation to get rid of the subjectivity of the artist.  For Cornell it’s the opposite.  In that sense Cornell is not a dadaist or a surrealist.  He believes in charms and good luck.  (61)

In Dime-Store Alchemy, Simic attempts to write about Cornell in the spirit of the artist.  Sometimes maybe he succeeds.  Pretty good.

I got to know Cornell’s work at the Art Institute of Chicago, so I have included some of my favorites from their collection, pieces I have studied from every angle allowed by the display.  From top to bottom, "Untitled (Soap Bubble Set)" (ca. 1957), "Dovecote" (1950), and "Soap Bubble Set" (1940/1953). Simic’s book has good photos of nine more Cornells, but from one side only.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

E. A. Robinson's abhorred iconoclast, Captain Craig - guest appearance by Count Pretzel von Würzburger, the Obscene

                                                Time throws away
Dead thousands of them, but the God that knows
No death denies not one:  the books all count,
The songs all count…  (p. 5)

Some lines from “Captain Craig” by Edwin Arlington Robinson, a poem that can only be found in one of those books that has been thrown away, Captain Craig: A Book of Poems (1902).  The poem is a discursive, philosophical narrative of 85 pages in the original, which means it is doomed.  No one putting together a Selected Poems of E. A. Robinson or an anthology of American poetry can afford to keep it.

Other poems from Captain Craig go in the anthologies: “Erasmus” (“There were some of them did shake at what was told / And they shook best who knew that he was right”) and the sweet (and just short enough at 15 pages) “Isaac and Archibald,” about two old friends worried each other’s mind is going.  But not “Captain Craig.”

It is an interesting poem just for its subject, the title character.  He is an early example of a great American type, the Bohemian who ends up on the bum.  A hobo or folk singer or poet.  Joe Gould or Neal Cassady or maybe, earlier, Henry David Thoreau.

“I, Captain Craig, abhorred iconoclast,
Sage-errant, favored of the Cosmic Joke,
And self-reputed humorist at large…  (56)

He is beginning his testament, like François Villon, one of his ancestors.  “Sage-errant” is a good pun.  These types are highly unreliable sages.  One of the smart touches in “Captain Craig” is that the narrator and his friends are attracted to but also suspicious of old Captain Craig’s wisdom.

There is a story, but not much of one.  The poet and semi-Bohemian friends have befriended Tilbury, Maine’s eccentric Captain; the poet leaves town but corresponds with Craig; the poet returns for Craig’s death.  Along the way there are a lot of ironic stabs at wisdom and stories of people even nuttier than Craig, the best of whom is

“Count Pretzel von Würzburger, the Obscene
(The beggar may have had another name,
But no man to my knowledge ever knew it)”  (35)

The Count is ““a poet and a skeptic and a critic” and a musician who

“Played half of everything and ‘improvised’
The rest: he told me once that he was born
With a genius in him that ‘prohibited
Complete fidelity,” and that his art
‘Confessed vagaries,’ therefore.”

Another of the classic type, a more extreme version.  Some of these phrases made me doubt the date of the poem, but these are proto-Beatniks.  Count Pretzel provides a perfect parody of the kind of E. A. Robinson sonnets that impressed me so much in Robinson’s previous book, The Children of the Night (1897); never let me say Robinson does not have a sense of humor about himself.

                                            I had sinned
In fearing to believe what I believed,
And I was paying for it…  (13)

Perhaps that gives an example of the kind of wisdom available not necessarily from the mouth but from simply knowing Captain Craig.  “I knew / Some prowling superfluity if child / in me had found the child in Captain Craig” (13).  Robinson was himself one of the types, just not so much as Captain Craig.

At some point I will give up Robinson’s original books and finish him off in a Selected Poems. But not yet.

Saturday, February 6, 2016

a deficiency of shading - "The Siege of London" and "Lady Barberina"

The most frequently reprinted, and best, of the James tales I read recently were “The Siege of London” (1883) and “Lady Barberina” (1884), both 90-pagers with many short chapters – little mini-novels.  The first is a return to the usual James theme of Americans in Europe, as one could guess from the title, with one particularly vulgar American lady as the siege engine, while Lady Barberina is an Englishwoman dragged to New York City by marriage.  The stories, and the women, contrast pleasingly.

Mrs. Headway, the battering ram, is much-married, not quite respectable, and from San Diego, New Mexico ( James’s New Mexico is a reminder that he was a fantasy writer).  None of this makes the character interesting to James.  Here is the problem:

There was something in Mrs. Headway that shocked and mortified him, and Littlemore had been right in saying that she had a deficiency in shading.  She was terribly distinct; her motives, her impulses, her desires, were absolutely glaring.  She needed to see, to hear, her own thoughts.  (Ch. V)

A “deficiency of shading”!  Jamesians gasp in horror.  I was rooting for Mrs. Headway.

A visit to an English country house results in a rare bit of Jamesian description.  Some deer are “scattered like pins on a velvet cushion over some of the remoter slopes,” which is easy enough to picture, unlike “the grayness of evening beginning to hang itself on the great limbs of the oaks” and even better “the trees had an air of conscious importance, as if nature herself had been bribed somehow to take the side of country families” (all from Ch. VII).

“Lady Barberina” had a good one (the characters are in a conservatory): “The gloom was rosy with the slopes of azalea, and suffused with mitigated music, which made it possible to talk without consideration of one’s neighbors”  (Ch. II).  There is a “band of music concealed in a bower of azaleas,” thus the odd phrase about the music.  It is an odd sentence all around, which is not a complaint.

As with the other tales from this period, “Lady Barberina” is comic and satirical, with plenty of jokes, although it is not a pure humor piece like others I have mentioned.  It has a story, characters, some ethical complexity, etc.  Characters debate a question “with the moral earnestness of a pair of Bostonians” (Ch. V) – can’t accuse James of that.  Or here an American couple wonder if an American doctor can dare marry an English aristocrat:

[Husband]: “Young female members of the British aristocracy have married coachmen and fishmongers, and all that sort of thing; but they have never married you and me.”

[Wife]: “They certainly haven’t married you.”  (Ch. IV)

If The Bostonians is not funny I am going to be so irritated.  I feel that if I have accomplished nothing else I have at least finally understood Henry James’s sense of humor.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

too serious for a joke and too comical for anything else - more Henry James comedy - What a place for me to live, who hate arithmetic!

I said James, post-Portrait of a Lady was bringing his Europeanized Americans back to America, but I only quoted an Englishman, a stuffy Member of Parliament.  James was bringing some Europeans over, too, as in “Pandora,” where the protagonist is a German nobleman and diplomat, the perfect combination of education, manners, and complete cluelessness, a good source of laughs, as when he gives a tour of the Capitol building – the one in Washington, D. C., that Capitol – despite the “certain bedaubed walls, in the basest style of imitation, which made him feel faintly sick” and its “lobby adorned with artless prints and photographs of eminent congressmen, which was too serious for a joke and too comical for anything else.”

And there we have a self-description.   “Pandora” is “Daisy Miller” turned inside out and put in reverse, just as claimed at The Little White Attic, “James’s little joke,” especially when a woman in the know warns the German that Pandora, the appealing girl from the title, “should be a Daisy Miller en herbe.”  It is six years after “Daisy Miller,” which was such a hit that James is only distantly referring to his own story at this point.

This Daisy Miller, who is perhaps something else, the self-made girl, “got into society more or less by reading, and her conversations was apt to be garnished with literary allusions, even with sudden quotations.”  Perhaps today’s Pandoras have book blogs.

There are some good jokes about Pandora’s “fat, plain, serious” parents, who “spoke sometimes, but they seldom talked.”  My favorite bit, about the father:

Her husband had a stiff gray beard on his chin, to which constant shaving had imparted a kind of hard glaze.

In “Pandora” the jokes come from James’s comments on his narrators point of view, while in “Impressions of a Cousin” (1883), we get a full-on comic narrator, the semi-Bohemian artist companion of her wealthy, beautiful heroine-like cousin, amusingly unreliable in that she mistakes what is going on around her, mostly which suitors are in love with which suitees.  They have returned to New York City from Europe to review their accounts or something.  The romance in the story is a little thin, but the jokes are good:

…  he asked me why I didn’t try people.  What people? the people in the Fifth Avenue?  They are even less pictorial than their houses.  I don’t perceive that those in the Sixth are any better, or those in the Fourth and Third, or in the Seventh and Eight.  Good heavens! what a nomenclature!  The city of New York is like a tall sum in addition, and the streets are like columns of figures.  What a place for me to live, who hate arithmetic!

The story is trivial, but the narrator is fun.  “I answered – I hardly remember what; but there was a taint of that perversity in it.”  Another self-description.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Henry James comes home - Who would have carried Plummeridge’s portmanteau?

The next Henry James novel I am going to read is What Maisie Knew (1897), spurred by Lakeside Musing and others, but since the last one I read was The Portrait of a Lady (1882), and I want to know what happens next.  James used his short fiction, his “tales,” and some of his earlier novels to prepare himself for his big statement, his masterpiece.  He worked on characters, ideas, and points of view.

James is the kind of writer who discovers what he wants to write by writing, but he has a strong enough conceptual sense that he does not want to risk improvising it all on the spot.  He works towards something; what that is he learns along the way.  That is the impression I have gathered.

How many writers are able to work their notes for a novel into polished commercial magazine fiction?  That by itself is impressive.

I read five “tales” written between Portrait and The Bostonians (1885-6), which I take as a the next major James novel.  The Princess Casamassima, even longer than The Bostonians, was serialized in a different magazine around the same time.  Maybe that one is also a major novel.  I have not read either.  James was as inexhaustible as Trollope at this point.  The “tales” are “The Point of View” (1882), “The Siege of London” (1883), “The Impressions of a Cousin” (1883), “Lady Barberina” (1884), and “Pandora” (1884).  Next would be “The Author of ‘Beltraffio’” (1884) which I read a few years ago and which anyways does not fit the amusing pattern of Americans returning to America from Europe.

It is a good jokes, as if he sent his characters to Europe and now has to bring them home.  In “Point of View,” this is almost literally the case, since it opens with a young woman from “The Pension Beaurepas,” published three years earlier and set in Switzerland, on an Atlantic ocean liner, “soon to enter the Bay of New York.”

The piece is barely a story but more of a collection of gags, a bundle of letters, all written by different people, back to Europe with impressions of America.  For all I know all of the letter writers are characters from old James stories.  That would be great.

Here is the Honourable Edward Antrobus, M.P., writing to his wife about the inconveniences of train travel:

I have sometimes thought it was a great mistake not to bring Plummeridge; he would have been useful on such occasions.  On the other hand, the startling question would have presented itself – Who would have carried Plummeridge’s portmanteau?

Then he goes on about his tin tub, and who carry his valet’s tin tub, etc.  The conceit is that this letter is written in the upper berth of a sleeping car, and that the M.P. is completely freaked out that the sleeping cars are mixed sex and that there is a woman in the berth directly below him – “behind the same curtains.”

It is the purest piece of comic writing I have ever seen from James, with just a hint of a story, about that woman from “The Pension Beaurepas” and her attempts to marry an American.  Otherwise, mostly a humor piece.  And it brings James back to America.

Monday, February 1, 2016

They procured several books and settled on a system - Flaubert attacks knowledge in a book packed with everything he knows

Bouvard and Pecuchet, Gustave Flaubert’s unfinished 1882 conceptual novel, is what I have here.

The two title characters are Paris clerks who become friends, come into some money, and retire to the Normandy country side to pursue – well, what exactly?  They need something to do, so they do everything.

Bouvard and Pecuchet are good comic characters, and their adventures as city fools in the country – ruining their farm, offending their neighbors – have enough of the manner of a story to make Bouvard and Pecuchet something of a novel.

The bulk of each chapter, however, is more akin to a list.

“Six months later they had become archaeologists, and their home looked like a museum” (first line of Chapter 4, p. 87).  A couple of pages describe the contents of the museum in Flaubertish detail.  “The frame of the mirror was decorated with a black velvet sombrero, and an enormous clog, full of leaves, held the remains of a bird’s nest” (87), etc.  Then comes the activity.  B & P visit churches, fortresses, manors; they buy or dig up all sorts of artifacts; they investigate lots of tedious questions.  “No effort or sacrifice was too great” (90).  Faced with difficulties, some caused by their own folly, their enthusiasm for architecture and history wanes and is replaced by – let me move to the next chapter – a passion for literature.  “First they read Walter Scott” (first line of Ch. 5, 115).

Repeat.  Chapter 3 was about science.  Chapter 6 is about politics – 1848 intrudes.  Chapter 7, love.  Chapter 8, medicine.  Exercise, first, actually.  “Pleased with their regimen, they decided to improve their constitutions with gymnastics” (first line of Ch. 8, 170).  The failure of exercise leads to medicine, the failure of medicine leads to philosophy, the failure of philosophy leads to religion, the failure of religion leads to education.  “They procured several books about education and settled on a system” (first line of Ch. 10, 245).

The novel is as repetitive as it sounds, in places close to mechanical.  B & P clumsily grind through a field, preceded by the author who read the same books, and more, in order to extract little chunks of knowledge with which to pelt his characters.  One field after another, to exhaustion.  I had not realized that Flaubert had written an Omnibook, but here it is.

Flaubert is satirizing amateurism, which is painful enough, but more broadly he is satirizing the pursuit of knowledge, the value of knowledge, which is a rough message.  What drives B & P crazy is uncertainty.  Even the experts don’t agree!  They can’t even follow Voltaire’s advice to cultivate their garden, since no two sources agree on fertilizing techniques.

Then their minds developed a piteous faculty, that of perceiving stupidity and being unable to tolerate it. (205)

Everything ends wells at least.  The novel is unfinished, but there is an outline up to the end.

The friendship of the two characters is a treat, and there are the usual scattering of fine Flaubertian lines – “Dusk was falling; crows dropped into the furrows”  (25) is a particular favorite, the second verb making the translator do some work.

But the novel is conceptually pretty pure, even for Flaubert.

Page numbers and translations are from Mark Polizzotti’s outstanding recent version of the novel.

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Swinburne via Beerbohm and Sebald - he cooingly and flutingly sang

Max Beerbohm wrote a pleasing account of his visits to Algernon Swinburne.  “No. 2, the Pines,” is the essay, and Swinburne’s suburban address; it can be found in the 1920 And Even Now collection, or the recent The Prince of Minor Writers (2015, NYRB Classics).

Beerbohm was at this point the hot, or I guess cool, new thing in essay writing.  In the amusing “Diminuendo” (1895), Beerbohm discusses his declining influence and eclipse by the next cohort of writers.  He wonders if he should gracefully pack it in.  He is twenty-three years old.

So young Beerbohm frequently dines with the famous poet at the invitation of Swinburne’s friend, roommate, and caretaker Theodore Watts-Dunton.  Swinburne is quite deaf and his nervous complaint had worsened.  “His hands were tiny, even for his size, and they fluttered helplessly, touchingly, unceasingly” (35, page numbers from the NYRB book).  He did not speak – Watts-Dunton did not invite him to speak – until he had eaten a sufficient quantity of his “huge… joint of roast mutton,” and then:

So soon as the mutton had been replaced by the apple pie, Watts-Dunton leaned forward and “Well, Algernon,” he roared, “how was it on the Heath to-day?”  Swinburne, who had meekly inclined his ear to the question, now threw back his head, uttering a sound that was like the cooing of a dove, and forthwith, rapidly, ever so musically, he spoke to us of his walk; spoke not in the strain of a man who had been taking his daily exercise on Putney Heath, but rather in that of a Peri who had at long last been suffered to pass through Paradise,  And rather than that he spoke would I say that he cooingly and flutingly sang of his experience.  (36-7)

There we have a good dose of Swinburne and Beerbohm both.

In one strange passage, Swinburne tells a story of his aunt telling him a story about coming across the burial of a suicide at the crossroads, “a Hogarthian night scene,” but more vivid to Beerbohm is the scene of the story-telling:

a great panelled room, a grim old woman in a high-backed chair, and, restless on a stool at her feet an extraordinary little nephew with masses of auburn hair and with tiny hands clasped in supplication – “Tell me more, Aunt Ashburnham, tell me more!”  (40)

Part of the strangeness of the passage is that I had read it before, but where?  At the end of Chapter VI of W. G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn (1995), when the description of the sunken city of Dunwich turns to the last years of its greatest fan, Swinburne, and a great story of Swinburne’s vision of Coleridge’s Xanadu – “every last detail of the fabled palace.”  Someday I should track down which biography Sebald pilfered for this story, or perhaps convince myself that he made it up.

The chapter ends with a visit to Watts-Dunton and Swinburne, Beerbohm’s account mixed with someone else’s, or an invention – the visitor who thinks of Swinburne as an “ashy grey silkworm” (165, tr. Michael Hulse) is not Beerbohm.  Also, Sebald substitutes beef for Beerbohm’s mutton for some reason.  But he ends the chapter with this:

After the ball they drove many miles homeward on a crisp, cold, snow-bright winter night, when suddenly the carriage stopped by a group of dark figures who, it transpired, were burying a suicide at a crossroads.  In writing down this memory that goes back a century and a half into the past, noted the visitor, himself long since deceased [Max!], he beheld perfectly clearly the dreadful Hogarthian nocturne as Swinburne painted it, and the little boy too, with his big head and fiery hair standing on end, wringing his hands and beseeching: Tell me more, Aunt Ashburnham, please tell me more.  (165-6)

So, one more source for the “Demystifying Sebald” file.

Friday, January 29, 2016

The Hundred Best Books as per Swinburne, Ruskin, and others - "jumping shrimps on a sandy shore express great satisfaction in their life"

In the fourth volume of Algernon Swinburne’s letters the alcoholic poet’s friends and family staged an intervention, saving his life at the cost of making his letters more dull.  I assumed that the final two volumes, with Swinburne living in the suburbs under the care of his friend Theodore Watts, writing more criticism than poetry, growing increasingly deaf and obsessing over babies – he really enjoys meeting babies – would lose the narrative thrust that made the earlier volumes often read like a good novel.  That is certainly the case with Volume 5.

Not that it is not good fun to see Swinburne tear into filthy Zola or execrable Byron (“I really know of nothing so execrable in literature as Byron’s plays,” letter 1308, Jan. 6, 1885, to William Rossetti, p. 93), or to watch him badger his publisher for “some few of Trollope’s numberless  novels” and the latest Gilbert and Sullivan play (“without the music,” 1426, June 21, 1887, p. 195).

Even better, I was led to an amusing document.  The Pall Mall Gazette published a list of the hundred best books by Sir John Lubbock and then asked writers, clergymen, librarians, and lunatics to comment on it.  The results were published as The Best Hundred Books By the Best Judges (1886).  “There is no more delightful pastime than to lecture other people on the choice of books” – no, no, not true.

The original list is too ordinary to be of much interest.  Swinburne’s is also surprisingly standard, to the point that I have read all but ten of his choices and all but one of his top fifty.  Shakespeare, Aeschylus, “Selections from the Bible,” Homer, Sophocles, Aristophanes, and on like that.  No Euripides.  No Horace, since his childhood Latin instruction poisoned him against Horace.

Look, there’s Byron, but just “’Don Juan,’ cantos I-VII, XI-XVI, inclusive, and ‘Vision of Judgment.’”  I wonder what Swinburne has against Canto VIII.

Swinburne is a genuine expert on Elizabethan and Jacobean literature, so his list is packed with the plays and poetry of the period, but he is fair enough to novelists: Rabelais, Voltaire, Diderot, Balzac, Stendhal, Dumas; Defoe, Swift, Goldsmith, Fielding, Sterne, Scott, Austen, Dickens, Thackeray, Gaskell, Eliot, E. and C. Brontë; Wilhelm Meinhold – that one stumped me.  Childhood favorite, I’ll bet.

Conventional.  Perhaps Swinburne takes the exercise too seriously.  Or not seriously enough, as I see in the great find of the supplement, the annotated list of John Ruskin.  He does not submit his own list but rather mangles the original, and the Pall Mall just publishes it (larger, legible image here):

Ruskin is “[p]utting my pen lightly through the needless – and blottesquely through the rubbish and poison.”  The “Moralists,” theology, and Eastern epics are lightly excluded, while the historians and philosophers are hilariously blotted, as is Darwin – The Voyage of the ‘Beagle’! – and the journals of Captain Cook.  Why, why?  He murders every novelist except for Dickens and Scott,  A letter explains some but not all of his choices – “Gibbon’s is the worst English that was ever written by an educated Englishman” – and concludes with a call for someone to write an “intelligible” book about “the biography of a shrimp,” since he “was under the impression of having seen jumping shrimps on a sandy shore express great satisfaction in their life.”

Ruskin is the greatest.

I am sure there are other treasures in this pamphlet.  Wilkie Collins, William Morris, and Mary Elizabeth Braddon, contribute lists.  Surely nothing as good as Ruskin, though.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Not a vestige of propriety, or any beastly rules to be kept! - angry, cruel Trollope

Three more examples of Trollope’s use of the sympathy device.  The Way We Live Now is Trollope’s angriest novel (disclaimer: that I have read).

First, the inversion and eventual removal of sympathy, Trollope playing against the natural tendency to fall in line with the interests of whichever character happens to be in front of me.  Some of the funniest scenes star a group of degenerate proto-Wodehouse characters, dissolute noblemen squandering their money, status, and livers.  Bertie without Jeeves and with a gambling problem.

One of them describes their club:

“Not a vestige of propriety, or any beastly rules to be kept!  That’s what I liked,” said Nidderdale.  (Ch. 96)

I know Trollope well enough to know that in the ethos of his novels, these are the words of a monster.  And Nidderdale is hardly the worst of them.

A different one, worse but also not the worst, Felix Carbury, gets the most attention, the closest interior inspection.  Trollope gives him a chance to reform.  The key moment is when he discovers that a friend cheats at cards and is bothered.  Perhaps cheating at cards is wrong.  And if that is wrong, a number of ideas follow.  Trollope brings the character, and my sympathy, up to a precipice.  Do we dare jump?

The villain of the novel, Melmotte the financier, is a blank for most of the novel, but Trollope eventually takes him up, too.  In ordinary terms, the possibilities for sympathy are limited here.  Trollope even waits until he has committed a plain crime to spend time alone with him.  A character in Orley Farm (1862) commits a similar crime, yet receives the full sympathetic attention of the narrator.  Melmotte is allowed to induce pity while also indicting himself.  And even the narrator will not quite follow him to the end of his story.  No, reader, I will not put you in danger by suggesting you pity that.  A bit like what George Eliot does in Adam Bede, but with an easier case.

The complex case in The Way We Live Now is that of Georgiana Longestaffe, an aging (you know, 28) aristocrat who has priced herself too high in the marriage market and is ready to start cutting deals.  Georgiana is awful – sarcastic, peevish, petty, shallow.  Hilarious as a background character, but what a surprise when I found that she got her own subplot.  What a character to spend time with.  I knew that The Way We Live Now had an anti-Jewish component; it is pretty much entirely contained in this subplot.  One way to create sympathy around a bad person is to make everyone around her worse.  The narrator, usually plenty chatty, keeps his mouth shut during these scenes.

By the end, I had plenty of sympathy for horrible Georgiana, who was making the best of a bad hand.  Well done, Trollope.

Georgiana’s subplot was cruel, in the fictional sense.  The Way We Live Now is Trollope’s cruelest novel (disclaimer as above).  It is most exquisitely cruel in this line, near the end:

How Mr. Flatfleece went to law, and tried to sell the furniture, and threatened everybody, and at last singled out poor Dolly Longestaffe as his special victim; and how Dolly Longestaffe, by the aid of Mr. Squercum, utterly confounded Mr. Flatfleece, and brought that ingenious but unfortunate man, with his wife and small family, to absolute ruin, the reader will hardly expect to have told to him in detail in this chronicle.  (Ch. 96)

Dolly Longestaffe is Georgiana’s appalling brother.  Mr. Flatfleece is nobody, just a name and a function, turned into a character, barely, with one phrase just before his ruin, along with a “wife and small family” who are introduced only to be instantaneously crushed by the narrator, who blames the unfeeling, impatient reader, me.

The question for me now is: did Trollope become angrier and crueler in spite of his gentleness towards his earlier characters, or because of it?  Does sympathy destroy sympathy?

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Good enough for sympathy - the usual thing in The Way We Live Now

Narrative contains within it a powerful tendency towards sympathy.  Anthony Trollope is more aware of this than most writers, or at least he openly writes about the effect in his novels.  My favorite example is when in The Eustace Diamonds he titles a chapter “Too Bad for Sympathy.”  Lizzie Eustace is a bad, bad person; please, reader, show some dignity and stop sympathizing with her, no matter how much fun she is or how much worse the people around her are.

In the Barchester novels, no one is too bad for sympathy, not even Mrs. Proudie.  Bad people begin to appear in the Palliser novels, just one in Can You Forgive Her?, a little circle of them around Lizzie Eustace, a couple of villains in the Phineas Finn novels.

The Way We Live Now inverts the ratio.  Maybe seven characters in the large cast are ordinarily decent human beings.  The rest are bad, some bad enough to be evil, by which I mean they do harm to others.  Trollope spends plenty of time in the heads of some of the worst of the characters.

Several of the plots rely on the usual novelistic sympathy.  A decent person makes a foolish decision and I am led to sympathize with the attempts to deal with the consequences, and perhaps even the mistake itself.  Like I would have behaved any better, right?

Thus the two love triangles that fill much of the novel – I guess one is more of a love trapezoid, but I will ignore that.  Will Paul Montague be able to marry Hetta Carbury or will he succumb to his American fiancée Mrs. Hurtle, who once killed a man?   For almost half of the novel, the point of view is restricted to Montague, so when he breaks with and parts from Mrs. Hurtle in Chapter 47, it was a surprise when Trollope followed not Paul but Mrs. Hurtle to her room to reflect on what it all means.  The narrator restores sympathy.  That shooting was in self-defense.

My favorite example, because it is so minor, is the paragraph where sympathy is extended to the Emperor of China, who is enduring an English dinner party:

… that awful Emperor, solid, solemn, and silent, must, if the spirit of an Eastern Emperor be at all like that of a Western man, have had a weary time of it. He sat there for more than two hours, awful, solid, solemn, and silent, not eating very much, – for this was not his manner of eating; nor drinking very much, – for this was not his manner of drinking; but wondering, no doubt, within his own awful bosom, at the changes which were coming when an Emperor of China was forced, by outward circumstances, to sit and hear this buzz of voices and this clatter of knives and forks.  “And this,” he must have said to himself, “is what they call royalty in the West!”

The Way We Live Now is as much about status as money.  “[T]he changes which were coming,” yes.

Tomorrow, then, the other mode, the inverted sympathy, the refusal of sympathy.  Ambiguous sympathy.  The variety of modes are part of the complexity of the novel, part of what makes it so interesting.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

devoted to Literature, always spelling the word with a big L - The Way We Live Now

When I read on vacation I do not take notes, and with a long, complex book I cannot write much without notes.  I read The Way We Live Now (1874-5) while on vacation, therefore etc. which is a shame since I have come to think it’s the best Anthony Trollope novel of the dozen I have read.

With most novelists, once I have read twelve of his books I would not be so wishy-washy about which is best.  With Trollope, who knows, there might be a dozen more that are better.  I doubt it, but I don’t know.

The Way We Live Now is Trollope’s longest novel, which turns out to be one reason I thought it his best.  On the one hand, it is just more Trollope stuff, the kinds of characters and situations he had been inventing and rearranging for thirty years, but in this case more means not just more characters than usual, more social range, and a greater intricacy of plot.  I felt that Trollope had pushed himself to his limit, like this was the most complex artistic object he could create.

The center of the novel is short-fingered vulgarian Augustus Melmotte, a big money con artist, a one-man financial bubble.  His schemes entangle a range of other characters, whose schemes in turn entangle others, and on like that indefinitely, I mean logically, the only limit being the cognitive and artistic capacity of Trollope.  The cast of characters is genuinely huge, ranging socially from a farmer’s daughter to the Emperor of China, swear to God.

Why not keep going?  Why can’t the cast be the entire population of England, or Earth, and the story be everything that happens to everyone everywhere?  The first two hundred pages or so of the book suggested a theoretical novel which consists of nothing but the introduction of new characters.  The Way We Live Now was serialized, and I at times felt I was doing it an injustice by reading an episodic chunk every day for twenty days rather than every week or month.  Perhaps time should pass for me as it does for the characters, and as it did for the original readers.

Trollope begins the novel with a cruel trick – the other thing that makes this his best book is its.  The phoney baloney con game that starts the novel, long before Melmotte’s worthless Mexican railroad shares, is publishing, or literature, or books.  The first con we see is the act of writing a book.

She spoke of herself in these days as a woman devoted to Literature, always spelling the word with a big L.  (Ch. 1)

But her book is an inaccurate pop history worth about as much as those railroad shares and would literally worthless if it not puffed up by corrupt magazine editors and reviewers (“It must be confessed that literary scruple had long departed from his mind”).

The chapter is quite funny, but the subject is too trivial to sustain an 800 page serial novel, and if Trollope had attempted it he probably would have died in an enraged apoplexy before he finished it.  Best that he displaced his anger onto the financial sector.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

all presented to the Eye or Ear / Oppressed the Soul! - notes on George Crabbe

Edwin Arlington Robinson sent me back to George Crabbe, and not just because one of Robinson’s poems is titled “George Crabbe.”  Crabbe is Robinson’s ancestor, the author of a large body of narrative poetry about small town life, going back at least to “The Village” in 1783, the poem that made his reputation, but more to Robinson’s purpose in The Borough (1810), Tales (1812), and other books.

A selection of Crabbe is easily worth reading; The Borough and Tales are worth reading as a whole.  The latter is complete in the Penguin Selected Poems, the former included in excerpts.  It’s most famous parts are the four stories of “The Poor of the Borough,” especially “Peter Grimes.”  Oh yeah, “Peter Grimes.”

The Parish-clerk mere suffers shame and ostracism after he is caught stealing from the collection plate.  Ellen Orford merely suffers the trials of Job (“A Trial came, I will believe, a last; / I lost my Sight, and my Employment gone,” etc., etc. etc., ll. 329-30).  Abel Keene embraces petty vices.  But Peter Grimes is a bad, bad man.

He is a fisherman who hires orphan boys as assistants, knowing that no one cares how badly he treats them.  He treats them so badly that they die, one after the other.  The town authorities forbid Grimes from taking on a new boy.  Something like guilt, not just about the dead boys but also his treatment of his long dead father,  drives Grimes insane.

Crabbe is not as compressed as Robinson.  He needed 375 lines for all this, not a sonnet.

The three men all find themselves, once their crimes or sins are exposed, wandering around by the sea, on the beach or the tidal flat.  The “Peter Grimes” passage is especially intense:

When Tides were neap, and, in the sultry day,
Through the tall-bounding Mud-banks made their way,
Which on each side rose swelling, and below
The dark warm Flood ran silently and slow;
There anchoring, Peter chose from Man to hide,
There hang his Head, and view the lazy Tide
In its hot slimy Channel slowly glide…   (ll. 181-7)

It continues with eels, crabs, and a variety of birds, nature writing that takes a Gothic turn.  Crabbe was in his fifties when he wrote The Borough, much older than his Romantic contemporaries, and the satire and moralism of much of his poetry, not to mention the rhyming couplets and triplets, mark him as a poet of the 18th century, but these great boggy examples of the Intentional Fallacy are brilliant Romanticism.

He nursed the Feelings these dull Scenes produce,
And loved to stop beside the opening Sluice;
Where the small Stream, confined in narrow bound,
Ran with a dull, unvaried, saddening sound;
Where all presented to the Eye or Ear
Oppressed the Soul! with Misery, Grief, and Fear.  (ll. 199-204)

Those last lines are practically a definition of the Pathetic Fallacy.  As in so much great Romantic poetry, the effects of nature of the emotions are psychologically true.  Romanticism is realism.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

the flicker, not the flame - E. A. Robinson's favorite poets

Edwin Arlington Robinson made a useful move in The Children of the Night (1897), which I remind myself is his first (and also second) book – he included a series of poems paying tribute to his influences.  Perhaps “tribute” is not the right word.  They are mostly sonnets, scattered through the book, just like the Tilbury Town poems.  They are character sketches, except the drunk is not an inhabitant of a little Maine town but is Paul Verlaine, dead in 1896:

Why do you dig like long-clawed scavengers
To touch the covered corpse of him that fled
The uplands for the fens, and rioted
Like a sick satyr with doom’s worshippers?  (from “Verlaine”)

It’s an attack on gossip about artists, really – “let the worms be its biographers.”

The other poems about writers: “Zola,” “Walt Whitman”, “For Some Poems by Matthew Arnold,” “For a Book by Thomas Hardy,” “Thomas Hood,” and most importantly “George Crabbe.”

Hardy is a kindred pessimistic spirit, although I would not guess that from the poem, which is almost cheery:

Then, through a magic twilight from below,
I heard its grand sad song as in a dream:
Life’s wild infinity of mirth and woe
It sang me…

But of course it cheers the pessimist to meet someone who feels the same way.  Earlier he says that Hardy helps him escape pursuit by “hordes of eyeless phantoms,” whatever that means.  I wish I knew which book Robinson meant, but the answer is likely any of them, all of them.  That line about “mirth and woe” is a fine tribute.

George Crabbe is Robinson’s great precursor , at least of the Tilbury Town poems.  Crabbe’s books The Borough (1810) and Tales (1812), among others, describe small town life in England.  Crabbe’s stories are not universally grim, but the best ones like “Peter Grimes” sure are.  He usually needs three to four hundred lines to tell a story, a contrast with Robinson’s sonnets.  He is highly readable.

The most depressing thing about Robinson’s “George Crabbe” is his sense, likely true, that Crabbe is unread:

Give him the darkest inch your shelf allows,
Hide him in lonely garrets, if you will, -

My volumes of Crabbe are on the most prominent shelf in the house, between William Cowper and Rubén Darío, but set that aside:

Whether or not we read him, we can feel
From time to time the vigor of his name
Against us like a finger for the shame
And emptiness of what our souls reveal
In books that are as altars where we kneel
To consecrate the flicker, not the flame.

I have been revisiting Crabbe to remind myself of what he is like, and I think Robinson is overegging the pudding a little there, but I suppose he is also thinking about himself, unknown and self-published.

The poems about poets are not as vivid as the Tilbury poems but they sure are useful.  Editions of Robinson’s selected poems neglect these poems, including just a few of them, or none.  They are not the best reason to read Robinson, but are a good reason to read The Children of the Night as such.

Friday, January 22, 2016

Edwin Arlington Robinson and the doom we cannot fly from - the dark will end the dark, if anything

Edwin Arlington Robinson is a good example of why I wanted to turn to American writers for a while.  I last read him 25 years ago and came away with one tag, that his best poems are mostly narrative poems.  I have at hand a little book titled Tilbury Town: Selected Poems of Edwin Arlington Robinson (1953) that collects only these poems, little stories or character sketches set in a little town in Maine.  He wrote them over his entire career, from his first book in 1896 to the 1930s.  “Minniver Cheevy,” “Richard Cory,” etc.

A better reader might have remembered something about the poems themselves.

I have revisited Robinson with his second book (an expansion of his first), The Children of the Night (1897).  I do not believe that the title refers to the finest passage in Dracula, which was published in the same year.  I don’t see how it could. I wish it did.

Robinson is a classicist and formalist (so I have some new tags for him).  He is also, in this book, at least, a poet of unrelenting grimness and pessimism:

The frost that skips the willow-leaf will again be back to blight it,
And the doom we cannot fly from is the doom we do not see.  (from “The Wilderness”)

His little narratives are full of suicide and quiet despair.

But there, where western glooms are gathering,
The dark will end the dark, if anything:
God slays Himself with every leaf that flies,
And hell is more than half a paradise.  (from “Luke Havergal”)

In that poem, the ghost or dream of a woman is urging the title character to despair and suicide.  Is he guilty of something?  Did he abandon her, or murder her?  No clue.  I really just wanted that one line, “[t]he dark will end the dark,” which perfectly describes the book.

Most of the narrative poems in The Children of the Night are sonnets.  Robinson does not need much room to conjure up a person.  This one, Robinson’s idea of happiness, is worthy in Housman's spirit:

Cliff Klingenhagen

Cliff Klingenhagen had me in to dine
With him one day ; and after soup and meat,
And all the other things there were to eat,
Cliff took two glasses and filled one with wine
And one with wormwood. Then, without a sign
For me to choose at all, he took the draught
Of bitterness himself, and lightly quaffed
It off, and said the other one was mine.

And when I asked him what the deuce he meant
By doing that, he only looked at me
And grinned, and said it was a way of his.
And though I know the fellow, I have spent
Long time a-wondering when I shall be
As happy as Cliff Klingenhagen is.

The narrative poems even connect at one point, when John Evereldown, who is tormented by cheap booze and cheap women:

So the clouds may come and the rain may fall,
The shadows may creep and the dead men crawl,-
But I follow the women wherever they call,
    And that’s why I’m going to Tilbury Town.”  (from “John Evereldown”)

Anyway, thirty pages later in “The Tavern” this “skirt-crazed reprobate” seems to have murdered the tavern keeper, who is now a ghost “[w]ith his dead eyes turned on me all aglaze,” says the poet.

I wish I knew why I didn’t remember any of these poems.  They are the memorable kind of poem.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

very rare, possibly a "unique" - Twain's travel hodgepodges

A note on Mark Twain’s loose sense of structure in his early books.  They are such hodgepodges.  A bit of travel writing, a tall tale, some reasonably authentic memoir, a joke, an old newspaper piece, more travel writing, ordered as the materials are removed from Twain’s desk.  The voice pulls it all together, the sensibility.

Life on the Mississippi (1883) begins with a geography lesson, and then a history capsule stolen almost entirely from Francis Parkman followed by a genuine excerpt from “a chapter from a book which I have been working at, by fits and starts, during the past five or six years, and may possibly finish in the course of five or six more” (Ch. 3).  A chunk of Huckleberry Finn, in other words, “some passages in the life of an ignorant village boy,” actually completed in only two more years.

The excerpt has very little Finn in it – he is eavesdropping on some keelmen.    It now occurs to me what a difficult leap Twain made when he set his own voice aside and wrote Huckleberry Finn in the first person.

The early books are designed to be broken in pieces, even the novels.  The Gilded Age (1873) is mostly a compendium of the novelistic clichés of its day, but specific passages are outstanding, including a piece of pure travel writing about Washington, D.C. and a long joke about – let’s call its fashions in health care for dependents – that is among the funniest Twain writings I have ever encountered.  The book is worth reading once just to discover the parts that are worth reading again.

I find myself becoming impatient with the more straightforward travel writing in Innocents Abroad (1869), Roughing It (1872), and Life on the Mississippi.  Get to the funny stuff, Sam.  And he always does, soon enough.  The value of one more 19th century description of Italy is in passages like the long gag where Twain and his doctor friend decide to never be enthusiastic, no matter what the guide shows them.  Well, really they pretend to be idiots:

He brought us before the beautiful bust – for it was beautiful – and sprang back and struck an attitude:

“See, genteelmen! – Mummy!  Mummy!”

The eye-glass came up as calmly, as deliberately as ever.

“Ah, – Ferguson [Twain and the doctor have call their guide Ferguson]– what did I understand you to say the gentleman's name was?”

“Name? – he got no name! – Mummy! – 'Gyptian mummy!”

“Yes, yes.  Born here?”

“No!  'Gyptian mummy!”

“Ah, just so.  Frenchman, I presume?”

“No! – not Frenchman, not Roman! – born in Egypta!”

“Born in Egypta.  Never heard of Egypta before.  Foreign locality, likely.  Mummy – mummy.  How calm he is – how self-possessed.  Is, ah—is he dead?”  (Innocents Abroad, Ch. 27)

I suppose it is barely possible that Twain has, in a callous disregard for truth, invented all of this for the petty and corrupting amusement of his readers.

I have not read The Tramp Abroad (1880), about Twain’s walking tour of Germany and its neighbors, but I see that by the second chapter he has been led to a story that should have been in Roughing It, about a man who thinks he can talk to birds; a comic story about a frustrated California blue jay fills Chapter 3.  Why Twain had to go to Germany to find a place to put this story I do not know.  Hey, A Tramp Abroad is also the source of “The Awful German Language” (Appendix D).  I may have read more of this book than I realized:

I went often to look at the collection of curiosities in Heidelberg Castle, and one day I surprised the keeper of it with my German.  I spoke entirely in that language.  He was greatly interested; and after I had talked a while he said my German was very rare, possibly a “unique”; and wanted to add it to his museum.

These books must be unreadably bizarre to the reader who does not find Twain funny.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

measureless harm; more real and lasting harm, perhaps, than any other individual that ever wrote - Twain versus Scott in Life on the Mississsippi

First they read Walter Scott.  It was like the shock of a new world revealed.  (Gustave Flaubert, Bouvard and Pecuchet, Ch. 6, tr. Mark Polizzotti)

Sir Walter Scott is probably responsible for the Capitol building [of Louisiana]; for it is not conceivable that this little sham castle would ever have been built if he had not run the people mad, a couple of generations ago, with his medieval romances.  The South has not yet recovered from the debilitating influence of his books.  (Mark Twain, Life on the Mississippi, 1883, Ch. 40)

Twain’s great screed against Walter Scott is in Life on the Mississippi, Chapter 46.  I have long wondered to what extent he meant it.

Sir Walter had so large a hand in making Southern character, as it existed before the war, that he is in great measure responsible for the war.  (Ch. 46)

In the next line he does call this a “wild proposition.”  His argument is that for some unspecified reason, Southern culture was especially susceptible to Scott’s “Middle-Age sham civilization; and so you have practical, common-sense, progressive ideas, and progressive works; mixed up with the duel, the inflated speech, and the jejune romanticism of an absurd past that is dead, and out of charity ought to be buried.”

Twain returns to the idea enough that I think he did mean it.  Tom Sawyer is Twain’s Scott-damaged representative, harmless enough in his own book but dangerous in the notorious last episode of Huckleberry Finn (1885).  That much-hated ending has almost convinced me that Twain was right, although he puts too much emphasis on the medieval Scott, when his Scottish novels are more important (and also better novels).

The Southern gentility, much of it descended from the people depicted in Scott’s novels, embraced the ethos of honor and glory they read about in the novels as their own, along with an ugly modernization of the clannishness.  Losing the war only added to the identification with Scott’s doomed loyalists and fanatics, sacrificing everything for the Young Pretender or radical Calvinism, depending on which novel seemed most appealing.  That Scott and his protagonists are generally on the other side is beside the point.

Much of the decline of Scott comes from the massive shifts in our idea of honor – true no matter who I mean by “our,” I think – and the replacement of glory with celebrity.  Twain, one of his time’s greatest celebrities, writes as an opponent of the old honor.

[Scott] did measureless harm; more real and lasting harm, perhaps, than any other individual that ever wrote. Most of the world has now outlived good part of these harms, though by no means all of them; but in our South they flourish pretty forcefully still. Not so forcefully as half a generation ago, perhaps, but still forcefully.

So, that first line aside, I just about half believe Twain, maybe about as much as he believed himself.

Life on the Mississippi is, setting the Scott chapter aside, great fun from beginning to end – “The Mississippi is well worth reading about” (Ch. 1).  It is about one-third the memoir of Twain’s time as a cub pilot in the 1850s, and two-thirds a travel book with Twain revisiting the river.  I had thought the proportions were reversed.  At times I wished the proportions were reversed.  I mean, the glory days of the steamboats, what a time.  A visit to St. Paul – Twain is thorough – is not as interesting, even in Twain’s hands.  The proportion of nonsense and digression is satisfyingly similar to other Twain “non-fiction.”

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Crane and Twain put some comedy in their recital - The Private History of a Campaign that Failed

Crane writes about courage in its different forms in the stories in The Little Regiment, just as he does in The Red Badge of Courage.  I thought I should write “courage and cowardice,” but in the stories, unlike the novel, there is little in the way of cowardice.  The courageous characters are not just soldiers but also civilians, young women caught among invading troops, or the inhabitants of an Indiana town worried that a “rebel” is stealing their chickens – well, there is plenty of cowardice in that one (“The Indiana Campaign,” but it is played for laughs), or even the protagonist of Red Badge, brought back as an old man, courageous enough in his own interest at least.  The novel is condensed into a couple of paragraphs.  “Evidently he appreciated some comedy in this recital.”

Bierce’s war stories were generally sources of comedy, too, not just in his fiction but as much or more so in his memoirs, in Bits of Autobiography (1909), where his tone is permanently amused.  But Bierce finds death as a concept to be amusing, which is not Crane’s position, however their sense of irony might overlap; nor is it the position of Mark Twain in “The Private History of a Campaign that Failed” (1885), his memoir of his wartime “service” as a Missouri irregular on the side of the Confederacy.

Among the ironies of the title is the fact that Twain succeeded in getting out of the war without doing too much, or possibly any, harm.

There was more Bull Run material scattered through the early camps of this country than exhibited itself at Bull Run.  And yet it learned its trade presently, and helped to fight the great battles later.  I could have become a soldier myself, if I had waited.  I had got part of it learned; I knew more about retreating than the man that invented retreating.

The story of a bunch of Tom Sawyers playing soldier in the woods and retreating whenever a rumor passes by is well built for amusement:

Then we formed in line of battle and marched four miles to a shady and pleasant piece of woods on the border of the far-reaching expanses of a flowery prairie.  It was an enchanting region for war – our kind of war.

No one follows orders; no one knows how to ride a horse; no one knows much of anything.  The captain is named Dunlap, but since he “was young, ignorant, good-natured, well-meaning, trivial, full of romance, and given to reading chivalric novels and singing forlorn love-ditties” he Frenchifies his name to d’un Lap.  The great skill of this Missouri Quixote is giving names to the soldiers’ camps.

I am taking “The Private History” as a memoir, but it is likely full of lies.  The lies are at least consistent with other lies Twain tells in other works.  The episode I doubt the most is the one where Twain and his comrades fire on a man and kill him.

My campaign was spoiled.  It seemed to me that I was not rightly equipped for this awful business; that war was intended for men, and I for a child’s nurse.  I resolved to retire from this avocation of sham soldiership while I could save some remnant of my self-respect.

And like Huck Finn will later, or earlier, Twain lights out for the Territory.

Friday, January 15, 2016

Stephen Crane's Civil War stories - the stupid water derided him

I could use a book on Stephen Crane’s reading, too.  Or I could look at a Stephen Crane biography, I guess.  The research could be fruitless, though.  His first novel, Maggie (1893), has some superficial resemblance to Zola’s L’Assommoir (1877), and I sure saw a French touch in Crane’s prose.  Had Crane read that novel, or any Zola at all?  It turns out that no one has any idea.  Maybe.

Crane’s Civil War fiction is turning out to be the puzzler.  Mostly, Crane wrote fiction like the journalist he was – he went to the Bowery and wrote stories about the Bowery; trips to the American West and Cuba led to stories about the West and Cuba.  He spent days struggling to get ashore in an open boat, and the result was “The Open Boat.”  But The Red Badge of Courage (1895) and the stories in The Little Regiment and Other Episodes of the Civil War (1896) came out of nowhere.  From Crane’s reading, from his imagination.

Ambrose Bierce, a veteran who fought on many battlefields, published Tales of Soldiers and Civilians in 1891.  An ignoramus, if I had no knowledge of the authors I doubt I would be able to guess which one was the authentic soldier.  If anything, I would likely guess wrong, since Bierce’s stories so often center on bizarre phenomena and unlikely occurrences.  Crane is more grounded, although some of his subjects are also unusual, like the soldier in “A Mystery of Heroism” who risks death for a drink of water because of some badly understood peer effect:

The canteen filled with a maddening slowness in the manner of all bottles.  Presently he recovered his strength and addressed a screaming oath to it…  The stupid water derided him.

But when I say Bierce is bizarre, I mean a story ends with a soldier launched into the air by a tree-catapult, something really odd.  The act of genuine but pointless heroism in the Crane story is an ordinary phenomenon of war.

That passage does show the true oddness of Crane, his style.  Oddest of all is “The Little Regiment,” about the conflicts of two brothers in the same infantry unit.  The opening is terrific:

The fog made the clothes of the column of men in the roadway seem of a luminous quality.  It imparted to the heavy infantry overcoats a new color, a kind of blue which was so pale that a regiment might have been merely a long, low shadow in the mist.  However, a muttering, one part grumble, three parts joke, hovered in the air above the thick ranks, and blended in an undertoned roar, which was the voice of the column.

More of this for a couple of pages, the regiment stationed behind the battle, just artillery at this point, a scene of great strangeness but made stranger by Crane’s metaphors and sensory details:

The fog was as cold as wet clothes…  The machinery of orders had rooted these soldiers deeply into the mud precisely as almighty nature roots mullein stalks.

A little bit French, right?  Maybe also what we now call “over-written.”  Written, at least, definitely written.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

John Keats overwhelms himself in poetry

A little book about John Keats’s library; I would like to read that.  His first book, Poems (1817), is mostly about his vocation as poet and his reading.

I am not surprised that a 21 year-old poet, no matter his talent, does not have much of a subject outside of what he has read.  The 22 and 23 year-old poet, though, had plenty to say, but that’s the Keats story, right, this rapid development in poetic power and conception until illness drops him.

O for ten years, that I may overwhelm
Myself in poesy; so I may do the deed
that my own soul has to itself decreed.

So Keats declares in “Sleep and Poetry,” the long poem that ends the 1817 book.  What sad lines.  Given what happened – what is in this very book – those lines are believable.  Boy, six or seven more years of a healthy Keats.

At this point, though, Keats is doing what he says, overwhelming himself in poetry, imitating Spenser and so on.  Trained by earlier Romantics, he writes about nature, or Nature, but look at why he is writing about nature:

Keen, fitful gusts are whisp’ring here and there
    Among the bushes half leafless, and dry;
    The stars look very cold about the sky,
And I have many miles on foot to fare.
Yet feel I little of the cool bleak air,
    Or of the dead leaves rustling drearily,
    Or of those silver lamps that burn on high,
Or of the distance from home’s pleasant lair:
For I am brimfull of the friendliness
    That in a little cottage I have found;
Of fair-hair’d Milton’s eloquent distress,
    And all his love for gentle Lycid drown’d;
Of lovely Laura in her light green dress,
    And faithful Petrarch gloriously crown’d.

He wants to get out of nature, out of the wind, so he can read!  So he can read Milton and Petrarch.

The most famous poem in the book, “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer,” is like something from a book blog – a blog written by a great poet – so not really – but it is about the translation neurosis.  The “loud and bold” seventeenth century Chapman triumphing over the mannered, fussy Pope .  Not that Keats is wrong.  One of the all-time great poems about reading.

More poems are about writing poetry rather than reading it; I don’t want to exaggerate.  In the verse letter “To George Felton Matthew,” Keats seeks out “ [s]ome flowery spot, sequester’d, wild, romantic” hoping that his muse will meet him there so they can “soft humanity put on, / And sit, and rhyme and think on Chatterton.”

The “Imitation of Spenser” puzzled me by being such a pure natural description – the sky, the lake, nine lines about a diving kingfisher – but the key is the third stanza where the poet, who has just spent two stanzas describing the landscape, wishes that he could describe it, meaning better, presumably.  He wants to describe the “wonders” so well that he cheers up grief-stricken Dido and “rob[s] from aged Lear his bitter teen [misery].”  Keats imagines a poetry so exquisite that it heals the greatest sorrows not in real life, not in his life, but in literature.  What a vision.  Poetry as Grail quest.