Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Nobody reads it. - Henry Esmond, Thackeray's best book - a survey of opinion

Kind-hearted commenters have directed me to many other writers who have expressed their high opinion of The History of Henry Esmond.  Virginia Woolf thought it was Thackeray’s best novel, as did Anthony Trollope.

Walter Pater, in Appreciations (1889) calls it “a perfect fiction” (Newman’s Idea of a University is, in the same sentence, “the perfect handling of a theory”, and the Mallomar is “the perfect marshmallow-filled cookie”) – “Thackeray’s Esmond, surely, is greater art than Vanity Fair, by the greater dignity of its interests.”  By its what, now?  Pater often loses me somewhere along the way.

Oscar Wilde declares that “Esmond is a beautiful work of art because he wrote it to please himself.”*  That “because” should make a fellow nervous.  I refer readers to the not-so-brief quotation from Henry Esmond I posted yesterday, and would be delighted to read a defense of its “beauty.”  Not what he meant; I know.

What all of these writers, even Trollope, a true follower of Thackeray, have in common is a particular interest in style, in writerly tricks and effects, in difficulty, what John Crowley calls “a skilled and unexpected use of the tools of fiction.”  Other writers, and critics like me, are delighted with the “how” of the book, while the “what” slips into the background.

Henry Esmond is, after all, filled with duels and deathbed confessions and kings in disguise, the usual melodramatic claptrap.  Am I supposed to take all of that seriously?  I do, actually, but that’s because of Thackeray’s writerly skill – all that fuss seems surprisingly natural.

Trollope, again, in Thackeray (1879):

I told Thackeray once that it was not only his best work, but so much the best, that there was none second to it.  “That was what I intended,” he said, “but I have failed.  Nobody reads it. After all, what does it matter?” he went on after awhile.  “If they like anything, one ought to be satisfied.  After all Esmond was a prig.”  Then he laughed and changed the subject, not caring to dwell on thoughts painful to him. (Ch. V, 124)

Gee, poor Thackeray.  Trollope, as I mentioned yesterday, was impressed by the difficulty of Thackeray’s task, his simulation of the language of the early 18th century, of Addison and Steele and Swift, all of whom are actually characters in the novel.  Trollope suspects that the feat was so difficult that it actually damaged Thackeray’s later books – once he had mastered this new hybrid style, he was never able to free himself from it.

I will never know, because I am never going to read those later novels.  Who are we kidding?  I’m just glad I somehow was convinced to read Henry Esmond.  It’s a bit like Melville’s Clarel – it’s hardly an injustice that it is read less, even a lot less, than Vanity Fair.  Esmond is a prig, and his story has no Becky Sharp.  It’s a specialized novel.  Modernists and postmodernists should all read it carefully, even if it damages their sense that they invented everything valuable in literature.

I had sort of planned to move back to Hawthorne tomorrow.  No one will complain is I spend one more day on Henry Esmond, will they?  After all, blog posts are awfully easy to skip.

* "The Soul of Man under Socialism" (1891) in The Artist as Critic, ed. Richard Ellmann, 1968, p. 280.

Monday, November 29, 2010

The conceptual purity of Thackeray's Henry Esmond

An idly curious question, to begin, for any English professors who wander by: is William Thackeray’s The History of Henry Esmond, Esq. (1852) teachable?  Everything is teachable, so what I really mean is, under what circumstances would you want to teach it?*  The novel is fraught, as they say, with difficulties.

Henry Esmond is absolutely brilliant, dazzling even, but dazzling only from a certain distance.  Page to page, sentence to sentence, it can look like an awkward, disorganized, prosaic mess.  I don’t expect anyone to get very far with this sample, even though it describes a reasonably thrilling heroic feat:

By the besiegers and besieged of Lille, some of the most brilliant feats of valor were performed that ever illustrated any war.  On the French side (whose gallantry was prodigious, the skill and bravery of Marshal Boufflers actually eclipsing those of his conqueror, the Prince of Savoy) may be mentioned that daring action of Messieurs de Luxembourg and Tournefort, who, with a body of horse and dragoons, carried powder into the town, of which the besieged were in extreme want, each soldier bringing a bag with forty pounds of powder behind him; with which perilous provision they engaged our own horse, faced the fire of the foot brought out to meet them: and though half of the men were blown up in the dreadful errand they rode on, a part of them got into the town with the succors of which the garrison was so much in want. (II.15, “General Webb Wins Battle of Wynendael”)

The passage is entirely typical of a part of the novel, at least.  The novel’s subtitle is A Colonel in the Service of Her Majesty Queen Anne, Written by Himself, which is accurate, up to a point.  The book is a novel by Thackeray, but also a memoir by Colonel Esmond, written in Virginia in 1740.  Both books describe Esmond’s peculiar childhood, his military exploits, and, in a gesture towards a novel-like plot, his unrequited love for his beautiful cousin.  The plot is superb, actually, but Thackeray keeps it a secret for about two-thirds of the novel.  It’s a “How far will a man go for a beautiful woman” sort of story.

The memoir, and thus the novel, is written with the assumption that the reader is familiar with the events of the War of Spanish Succession, the rise and fall of the Duke of Marlborough, and the political fortunes of the claimants to the English throne.  Or at least as familiar as the reader of 1740 would be, which means quite a bit more knowledgeable than the read of 1852, or 2010.  I have done my share of reading from the period, and still had to look up this and that.

The Duke of Marlborough, just as an example, is also referred to as His Grace, the Commander-in-Chief, Churchill, and – I’ve forgotten at least one more.  Esmond’s choice is based on the circumstance of the reference, and signifies Esmond’s curiously full range of attitude, from respect to contempt, towards the Duke.  None of this is explained.  Who, in 1740, would think that necessary?

It’s all so pure.**  The language is a simulacrum of that of the age of Queen Anne.  Esmond’s memoir is not written like a novel – there were none, not like we know them.  I wonder if the fictional composition date is a nod to Samuel Richardson’s Pamela, published the same year, and commonly called the first English novel.  Thackeray’s historical novel is not written like a Walter Scott novel, though, again, I suspect a direct reference, since a good part of Henry Esmond’s plot is about the restoration of the Stuarts.  When Robert Louis Stevenson chose to write historical novels, he picked the same historical thread.

Henry Esmond is an uncompromising conceptual novel of extraordinary facility.  Anthony Trollope, in his little 1879 book, Thackeray, is as amazed as I am: “No one who has not tried it can understand how great is the difficulty of mastering a phase of one’s own language other than that which habit has made familiar” (124-5).  Thackeray is stone-faced, and unforgiving to the reader, yet somehow creates a genuine novel, a masterpiece.

* The Little Professor described a list of “imaginary courses.”  Those Brockport kids should be signing petitions and staging sit-ins to get her to teach them, especially the one on Browning’s The Ring and the Book.  Undergrads never know what’s good for them.

**  The novel was originally published to look like an 18th century book, including an antiquarian typeface!

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Recipes and culinary advice from Lady Jekyll, D. B. E. - go up to dress for dinner, feeling that you have done your duty

I posted a recipe yesterday, a first here.  I had to consider how to write the recipe - the rhetoric of recipes.  Although I chose, in the end, a standard format, I could have written it like this:

Fry the shallots.  Sauté the mushrooms.  Sauté the onions.  Add the green beans to the onions and steam for a few minutes in a seasoned cream sauce.  Add the mushrooms and simmer for a few minutes.  Serve topped with the fried shallots.

This is fundamentally the same recipe, in a lot less space.  The fact is that the exact measures of the ingredients, in this dish, are mere suggestions, and almost all are correctable on the spot.  It’s an easy dish, prepared using standard methods and ordinary ingredients.  Or so I can say now, having prepared it many times.  For most cooks, including me, a few years ago, this recipe is utterly useless.

I have in front of me Kitchen Essays, with Recipes and Their Occasions by Lady Jekyll, D. B. E. (Dame Commander of the British Empire), a collection of her columns, “short essays in cookery,” from The Times of London, circa 1922.  Her chapter titles gives part of the flavor of the book:

“Le Mot Juste” in Food
Luncheon for a Motor Excursion in Winter
For Men Only
Food for Artists and Speakers
Food for the Punctual and the Unpunctual
For the Too Thin
For the Too Fat

A taste of the prose:

There is nothing like Work, as Mr. Bernard Shaw reminds us (or was it Play?), to make a man or woman really selfish.  But with that excellent pacificator, Home-cured Tongue, danger can be temporarily averted and appetite allayed…  Once experienced, it will be in perpetual session, “by request,” on the sideboard, and no understudies in glasses or rolled, out of tins, can supplant the genuine article. (80)

A recipe follows, a mix of specifics (“of saltpetre ¼ lb., and 1 ½ lb. black treacle”) and unspecifics (“To be smoked for 2 days in a wood-fire chimney before boiling, and steeping with abundant vegetables and herbs, a few cloves and peppercorns, garnished with home-made glaze and a little aspic-jelly”).  Aspic, that’s Lady Jekyll’s answer to everything.  An entire meal encased in aspic, yee-um.  Here is the actual end of the recipe:

The result will repay the trouble, although unfairly, for ever one sows and another reaps. (81)

Lady Jekyll assumes that the reader knows how to fill in the gaps.  Or, actually, that the reader has a hired cook.  I imagine, week after week, the lady of the house handing her Times to her cook, saying, “This, please,” Sardines à la Sackville, Chicken à la Maryland and Oatmeal Sunday Pudding (all dishes for the too thin).  The recipe for Sardines à la Sackville begins “Make a nice purée of potato a little moister than the ordinary mashed preparation” (187).  She inserts the word “nice” into any number of recipes, and who would argue with her.  You prefer a potato purée that is not nice?

I do not need to imagine that hired help.  Chapter II is titled “In the Cook’s Absence.”  It ends:

Leaving these instructions before your kitchen-maid’s eyes, the sound of your stimulating words of hope and faith in her ears, you will be able, as hitherto, to transfer most of the burden on to her shoulders, and go up to dress for dinner, feeling that you have done your duty; but, as Mrs. Wharton told us in a recent admirable novel, “the worst of doing one’s duty is that it unfits us often for doing anything else.” (31)

Speaking of which, I thought I was taking the week off.  I am, I am, starting now.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Skillet green bean casserole - the from-scratch substitute for that glop from a can (no offense meant to the glop) - by request

My first foray into recipe blogging!  If you have access to the Cook's Illustrated recipe database, go there and search for Skillet Green Beans, of which this is an annotated adaptation.


For the fried shallots:
     3 large shallots, slice thin – onions taste fine, but shallots fry up so much more prettily.  Onions will never look as nice as the canned fried onions. The shallots will look better.
     ¼ teaspoon salt
     1/8 teaspoon pepper – more could hardly hurt – to taste, as they say
     2 tablespoons flour
     3 tablespoons vegetable oil – olive oil is nice, too

For the mushrooms:
     10 ounces mushrooms, sliced ¼ inch thick – I’ve used any number of kinds of mushrooms, alone or in combination.  No bad answer here.  Add a smidgen of truffle oil and blow people away!
     2 tablespoons vegetable oil
     ¼ teaspoon salt

For the green beans, etc.:
     2 tablespoons unsalted butter (or olive oil)
     1 medium onion, minced
     1 tablespoon flour
     2 medium garlic cloves, minced or pressed – definitely adjust to taste here
     1 ½ pounds green beans, ends trimmed, unless you love green bean ends
     3 sprigs fresh thyme
     2 bay leaves
     ¾ cup heavy cream – half and half is almost as good
     ¾ cup low-sodium chicken broth – in France, I used veal bouillon cubes, and I’ll bet a mushroom broth would be pretty good.


1. The fried shallots
Toss shallots with salt, pepper, and flour in small bowl.  Heat 3 tbsp oil in skillet over medium-heat until smoking.  Add shallots.  Cook, stirring frequently, until nice and crisp.  Dump the contents of the pan onto a plate lined with paper towels.

2. The mushrooms - this step just sautés them.
Wipe out the skillet.  Return to medium-high heat.  Add 2 tbsp oil, mushrooms, and salt.  Cook, stirring occasionally, until browned.  Maybe 8 minutes.  Transfer to bowl.

Note that these two steps can be done early. That holiday dinner – time management is crucial!

3. The green beans – maybe 15 minutes, right before serving.
Wipe out the skillet, or use a different pan, if you enjoy washing pans.  Heat butter until foaming subsides.  Add onions and sauté for 2 minutes or so.  Stir in garlic and flour (a little thickener).  Add green beans, thyme, and bay leaves.  Pour in cream and chicken broth, give it all a good stir, and increase heat.  Cover and cook green beans for about four minutes, for a little bit of steaming.  Add mushrooms and cook, uncovered, about 4 minutes more.  The green beans will be cooked, and the sauce will have thickened a bit.  If you are busy and let it cook a little longer, eh, it'll be all right.  Toss out the thyme and bay leaves.  A little more salt or pepper?  That’s up to you, chef.  If you are truly decadent, mix in a huge dollop of extra butter - even I don't do this.  Pour into your prettiest serving dish, and top with the fried shallots.

Serves 8.

Let’s review.  All basic ingredients.  Much lower sodium than using the canned soup.  Probably not lower fat, or not much!  It’s all on the stovetop, so you’re not competing with the turkey for oven space.  And I tell you, it’s those homemade fried shallots that really impress people.  No one expects it, and it's not even difficult.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Make your green bean casserole from scratch - Happy Thanksgiving!

Update: the recipe is here.

Since it's Thanksgiving Week, and my mind is elsewhere, Wuthering Expectations will postpone its ponderations about William Thackeray, Emily Dickinson, and, endlessly, Nathaniel Hawthorne for a week.

My heartfelt holiday advice is not to use a can of cream of mushroom soup in your green bean casserole, but to make the sauce from scratch.  You can do it all in one pan.  Everyone will be happier.  Let me know if you want the recipe.  My recipe is France-tested.  Meaning, it was served, and was un triomphe, at a Thanksgiving dinner in France, with French guests.  No, not Parisians, but jolly, friendly Normans.

Make the fried onion topping from scratch, too (separate pan for that).  Shallots fry up more prettily than onions.

Is anybody cooking a truffled turkey for Thanksgiving?  One of those truffled trukey posts has a recipe in the comments.  Man, back in 2007 I knew how to keep it short.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Postscript:  The Library of America blog wrote up my Wilder Little House week.  If you thought I was blowing smoke, but were too polite to say so here, go over there and tell them.  An LOA edition of Wilder is in the works - good.

Friday, November 19, 2010

The plungings and the snortings, the sportings and the buffoonings - Newman loves literature

My town’s public library has a Religious Fiction section, over by the Mystery and Science Fiction shelves, and about the same size.  I have no idea what is in it.  I have looked, but that was not much help.  Every book I glanced at was, more or less, terrible, but I suspect that the outcome would have been statistically similar in any other part of the library, controlling for publication date and so on.

John Henry Newman, in his discourses on “Literature” and “English Catholic Literature,” does not argue against religious fiction, not exactly, but he is suspicious, even though he himself was the author of a Catholic novel (Loss and Gain, 1848).  He defends non-Catholic, and even anti-Catholic, literature.  He defends their place in the Catholic university, and is not convinced that the Catholic university will have much of a role in creating something called “Catholic literature.”

Newman’s ecumenicism is a delight, although it has its limits – he does not hesitate to call Hobbes and Hume “evil” and a “disgrace” (“ECL,” 276), but he does not then say a Catholic should not read them or authors like them:

They [Milton and Gibbon] are great English authors, each breathing hatred to the Catholic Church in his own way, each a proud and rebellious creature of God, each gifted with incomparable gifts.

We must take things as they are, if we take them at all. (“ECL,” 268)

Newman’s keenest argument is that even if we would like to insulate ourselves from writers of dubious belief, it is too late.  Our language is suffused with theirs.  The English Catholic’s ordinary speech is already full of Shakespeare and Gibbon, the King James Bible and the Book of Common Prayer.  “English Literature will have ever been Protestant” (272, emphasis Newman’s) and “Man’s work will savour of man” (274).  I will admit that I am almost always attracted to arguments against purity, that one must accept impurity as a fact of the world and act accordingly.

Does this sound familiar?

This is not a day for great writers, but for good writing, and a great deal of it.  There never was a time when men wrote so much and so well, and that, without being of any great account themselves. (284)

Newman blames periodicals, not MFA programs.  The complaint is perpetual.  Was it ever true?  Was it ever not true?

One last quotation, which tips Newman’s hand.  He has to defend literature, classical, English, or otherwise.  He loves it too much:

National Literature is, in a parallel way, the untutored movements of the reason, imagination, passions, and affections of the natural man, the leapings and the friskings, the plungings and the snortings, the sportings and the buffoonings, the clumsy play and the aimless toil, of the noble, lawless savage of God’s intellectual creation. (“ECL,” 275)

Now that sounds like fun.  It is fun.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

John Henry Newman and neighborly, safely antagonistic book blogging

A recent John Henry Newman argument, step by step.  Roger Scruton, in The American Spectator, argues for “a wholly new kind of university” based, somehow, on the principles of The Idea of a University.  Good luck with that!  Miriam Burstein warns Scruton, and me, that Newman’s argument is founded on his Catholic faith, even, at times, when he specifically claims otherwise.  Reader beware.  When Newman defends knowledge for its own sake, one of the “aims” he leaves unspecified is certainly a strengthening or even discovery of Catholic religious principles.  Not sharing those principles myself, I am left dangling.

D. G. Myers asks if anything is then recoverable from Newman for anyone outside of a Catholic university or a similar institution.  His central point, as I understand it, is correct, that the educators and administrators of the modern university do not have a cohesive purpose, not like Newman envisioned, and are often openly antagonistic.  One could defend this state of affairs, but not with Newman’s arguments.

Burstein plucks a single quotation from Newman, almost a single word:

[R]eally, Gentlemen, I am making no outrageous request, when, in the name of a University, I ask religious writers, jurists, economists, physiologists, chemists, geologists, and historians, to go on quietly, and in a neighbourly way, in their own respective lines of speculation, research, and experiment, with full faith in the consistency of that multiform truth, which they share between them.  (“Christianity and Scientific Investigation,” 341, emphasis mine)

I have made an excerpt from Prof. Burstein's excerpt of a marvelously long, twisty sentence.  My slice makes Newman’s idea seem outrageous simply because he denies it is.  Still – quietly, neighborly.  I prefer, as more achievable, a similar metaphor from a bit earlier in the same discourse:

In this point of view, its several professors are like the ministers of various political powers at one court or conference.  They represent their respective sciences, and attend to the private interests of those sciences respectively; and, should dispute arise between those sciences, they are the persons to talk over and arrange it, without risk of extravagant pretensions on any side, of angry collision, or of popular commotion.  A liberal philosophy becomes the habit of minds thus exercised; a breadth and spaciousness of thought, in which lines, seemingly parallel, may converge at leisure, and principles, recognized as incommensurable, may be safely antagonistic. (337)

“Safely antagonistic” – even that, I would not want to take for granted, but it seems possible.  My PhD is from a program based on, known for, its seminar model.  All research of any seriousness was presented at safely antagonistic public seminars.  The professional standards were impeccable.  The audience, every member, typically, had read the paper in advance.  We played havoc with any intended presentation or slide show.  We skipped straight to the good stuff, by which I mean, the weakest arguments and evidence.  We were brutal.  To the extent that I am a competent professional in my field, it’s because of these seminars.

I have wondered if this safe antagonism can be replicated on book blogs.  It seems so difficult.  In the seminar room, every participant knew the rules and the limits of combat.  On the internet, I’m afraid not.  I try to respect the signals bloggers send about how aggressively they want to be challenged, but I’ll bet I misread them a lot, so mostly, I play it safe and try not to be a jerk.  Too big of a jerk.  Perhaps a more explicitly collaborative model makes more sense.

I have imagined digital stickers pasted to the top of the blog – “Have at me” (I’d use that one) or “Play nice” or “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” 

Have at me!  I'll thank you later. Maybe, ha ha, a lot later. It’s for my own good, the furthering of my liberal education. Maybe for your good, too.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Lingering in the vestibule of knowledge - Newman on professional knowledge, with a case study from my own education

Have I ever mentioned that I have an undergraduate English degree?  I do.  Or – one of my undergraduate degrees is an English degree.  I’m a social scientist.  The English degree was pure consumption, knowledge for its own end.  I should not have completed the requirements but rather spent that time studying German or French.  Or I should have finished my math degree.  No,no, the languages.  I took plenty of math.  One of those math classes was perhaps the most important I ever took.

It was Calculus III.  I believe there were about fifteen of us at the beginning.  Seven at the end.  I think I was the only social scientist in that group.  The rest were engineers, scientists, and maybe just one mathematician.  This was the hardest undergraduate class I ever encountered, by far, by so far.  I now know that it was a deliberate screen, driving off the insufficiently serious.

John Henry Newman devotes a chapter of The Idea of a University to “Knowledge Viewed in Relation to Professional Skill” – knowledge that is by no means for its own end.  By the end of the speech, he has cleverly turned the argument back into a defense of a broad, liberal education, but he understands the necessity of professional training, too.  How should a university engage in professional training?

[I]t is not mere application, however exemplary, which introduces the mind to truth, nor the reading many books, nor the getting up many subjects, nor the witnessing many experiments, nor the attending many lectures.  All this is short of enough; a man may have done it all, yet be lingering in the vestibule of knowledge – he may not realize what his mouth utters; he may not see with his mental eye what confronts him; he may have no grasp of things as they are; or at least he may have no power at all of advancing one step forward of himself… (134-5)

That’s where I and my classmates were, on the vestibule of knowledge, Good At Math but unable to advance a step without assistance.  I’m not sure how he did it – the difficulty of the class was necessary, but not sufficient to the task – but he taught us how to study math.

Six of us marched on to the same professor’s spring class (Differential Equations, I think), where we were joined by a new crop of recruits, all of whom found the course brutally difficult.  Not the veterans, though. We thought it was a breeze.  A powerful, difficult, laborious breeze, yes.  But no big deal.  We had already  learned how to learn about math.  I did not have another class so difficult, in math, or anywhere else, until I went to graduate school, which was a whole ‘nother ball game.

At this time last year, I was actually teaching a math class, to graduate students.  Much of the material was exactly what we covered in that crucial Calculus III class, although I’m not sure that’s relevant.  I was able to teach the class, I realized what my mouth uttered, because of Calculus III, twenty years in the past.  I was able to finish my PhD because of Calculus III.  I don’t want to guess how much of my professional success can be traced to this one course.

Newman argues that even professional training requires “the intellect” to be “disciplined for its own sake, for the perception of its own proper object, and for its own highest culture.”  He calls this “the business of a University” (135).  That’s what this math professor, a true practitioner of liberal education, did for us.  I don’t remember his name.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Freedom, equitableness, calmness, moderation, and wisdom - I ask John Henry Newman, why read?

Elif Batuman has developed a little specialty in attacking creative writing programs and contemporary fiction.  Some of her slashing is in The Possessed, especially the first chapter, but interested parties should track the wastes of the internet for her recent London Review of Books (TLS?) essay on the subject.  I didn’t read it myself – it’s 8,000 words on a subject I don’t care much about by a writer I don’t quite trust.

What should a budding young writer do, then?  If I understand her, the answer is to go to graduate school in comparative literature, allowing the writer, having accumulated the relevant quantity of experience, to write a hybrid memoir-novel about graduate school.  I don’t just mean that this is the answer for Batuman, but for everyone. I must misunderstand her advice.  If someone wants to brave those 8,000 words and report back, please, do.**

Please note that the pursuit of knowledge has become purely instrumental.  We acquire knowledge in pursuit of our novel.  Grad school seems like a dang costly way to get to that point, but different paths for different writers, right Elif?  Maybe even, for some, a creative writing program.

I, as narcissistic as Batuman, wonder why I pursue knowledge.  Meaning, useless knowledge.  Knowledge about literature.  My nickname, Amateur Reader, is meant seriously.  For the Professional Reader, literary study of some sort is the point of the exercise, professionally necessary.  And it’s easy enough to make practical arguments, for everyone, about the value of some reading.  I don’t know any reason for the amateur to read so much, though.  My reading goes far beyond any practical purpose.  Why, for example, did I recently read John Henry Newman’s The Idea of a University (*)?

Newman’s book is a collection of speeches aimed at convincing suspicious Irish Catholics of the value of founding a Catholic University.  I have no plans to found a university, Catholic or otherwise.  I want to spend the rest of the week thinking about this book, but I find an easy clue to my purposeless purpose in the title of one of the speeches: “Knowledge Its Own End.”

Newman has to argue in two directions – first, fending off the Utilitarians who demand a measurable outcome to all study, measurable, typically, in currency, and second, reassuring the Catholics who want all pursuits to be in the clear service of religious truth or moral improvement.  I’m not sure that Newman succeeds, and don't see how he could.  If a liberal education creates “[a] habit of mind… which lasts through life, of which the attributes are, freedom, equitableness, calmness, moderation, and wisdom” (90), which sounds great, how are these things not also both useful in the practical world and morally improving?

Potentially, at least, which is key.  Newman recognizes that the history of attempts to educate men to virtue has been a history of failure, that “such keen and delicate instruments as human knowledge and human reason” are poor tools for “contend[ing] against those giants, the passion and the pride of man” (107).  Newman concludes: “we perfect our nature, not by undoing it, but by adding to it what is more than nature, and directing it towards aims higher than its own” (109).

This is exactly right, or at least it is what I see in my own reading, my own writing, excepting a nervous rejection of the word “perfect.”  Still unanswered, by Newman, or me: what aims?

* The book went through many iterations.  The first version was published in 1852; the final version in 1873.  I’m using the 1947 Longmans, Green and Co. edition, ed. Charles Frederick Harrold.  Page numbers from this book.

** Please read the comments for the report. Thanks!

Monday, November 15, 2010

The protagonist’s struggle to transform her arbitrary, fragmented, given experience into a narrative as meaningful as her favorite books - Elif Batuman's novel

Last week I wrote about a couple of Laura Ingalls Wilder books as if they were fiction.  I know that they are often read otherwise, as memoir, as non-fiction.  They are mostly true.  True in outline.  True in – what?  Wilder could have published a memoir, identified as such.  I read somewhere that she explicitly called her books “historical novels.”  The choice of fiction gave Wilder something she wanted – a freedom to rearrange or invent incidents, or to add artful detail.  Perhaps fiction simply removed her anxiety about accuracy.

Or is this all just marketing?  Last summer I read a memoir that seemed blatantly fictional, or partly fictional, Elif Batuman’s The Possessed (2010).  Many reviewers have noted that the book’s subtitle (Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them) is deceptive – I would guess that The Memoir of a Stanford Comparative Literature Graduate Student would dampen sales.  Batuman is funny and a skilled writer, and her graduate studies fortunately include two short trips to Russia and a summer in Uzbekistan, which gives her something to write about.  The Samarkand episode makes up over a third of the book, and was easily my favorite part, although please see this Language Hat post for an ethical objection that just about does in the novel.  See this post, too.

Did I say novel?  I thought it was a memoir.  Or a collection of essays.  Or of magazine pieces.  All of the above!  I don’t quite remember exactly where I became suspicious.  The first chapter spends a little too much time on Batuman’s failed efforts to write fiction, and ends with a revelation so idiotic it is evidently a gag, misdirection: “What if you wrote a book and it were all true?” (25).  What a novel idea, Elif!  Ha ha.  Pun intended.

Here’s a point where I was sure I was reading a novel.  Batuman is in Ankara:

As a child I was fascinated by these crackers, which do not contain almonds, but are shaped like almonds.  This was my first lesson in metonymy.  Here, stopped at a red light, the driver half turned to face me.

“Would you like an apple?” he asked.

“No thanks,” I said.

“I picked these apples myself,” he said.  “With my own hands, from my own garden.”

From a plastic bag on the passenger seat, he produced a small apple.

The apple was hard, green, and misshapen, like the answer to some pointless riddle. (86-7)

And then, white space, a break in the text.  Kinda odd, I thought.  And it’s odd because it isn’t.  It’s a perfectly ordinary incident made strange simply because it is singled out.  That “pointless riddle,” especially, made me wonder.

Fifty pages later, apple #2, in Russia, this time:

The garden was empty but for the conference organizer, who was making a video recording of Chekhov’s apple trees, and the Malevich scholar, who stooped to pick up an apple, stared at it, and took an enormous, yawning bite. (136)

And – white space.  Huh.  At this point, I was absolutely certain that I would find one more apple.  We need three to fit various fairy tales and myths.  That’s how fiction works, right, the author overlays symbolic patterns on otherwise prosaic events?  But I began to despair.  Maybe I had misjudged.  I am on the next-to-last page - where's that third apple? Never mind - here it is:

One way to interpret [Chekhov’s] “The Black Monk” is as a cautionary tale about academic scholarship as a form of madness.  This madness affects not just Kovrin but also the horticulturalist, whose articles on seemingly “peaceful and impersonal” subjects – intercropping, the Russian Antonovsky apple – invariably devolves into invective against other horticulturalists. (289)

Language Hat, in the first post linked above, wonders why Batuman ends the book with this Chekhov story (and he’s right, the last chapter is weak).  We should now see why – she has to get that third apple into the book, and it has to link back to the second apple, from Chekhov’s apple tree.  How it fits with the first apple – the answer to the “pointless riddle”  – I will leave to future Batuman scholars.

I could have skipped all of this.  Batuman says, as directly as possible in this kind of postmodern screwing around, that her book is a novel:

Several years later, while writing my dissertation (about European novels), I formulated a theory of the novel: the novel form is “about” the protagonist’s struggle to transform his arbitrary, fragmented, given experience into a narrative as meaningful as his favorite books. (94)

The book I had been reading for 94 pages is “about” “the protagonist’s etc.”  Batuman defines the novel as the book she wrote, the book I was reading.

I don’t actually care that Elif Batuman’s memoir, presumably mostly true, mostly non-fiction, is also partly a novel, and partly fiction.  W. G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn (1995) and Thomas Keneally’s Schindler’s Ark (1982) are also mostly true – almost entirely true – but are called, by their authors, novels.  Much fiction is true, much non-fiction is false; much that is false is valuable, much that is true is not.  And why should I depend on publisher’s labels to tell me how to read a book?  However a book is marketed, keep your eye on the apples.

Friday, November 12, 2010

This is now - Laura Ingalls Wilder and the Augustinian conception of time

Little House in the Big Woods moves through a single year, autumn to autumn, roughly.  Laura has her fifth birthday during the winter.  The seasonal cycle is an obvious, almost necessary, structure for any story like this, a story about agriculture and hunting, man (or child) in nature.  Little House on the Prairie mimics the movement through the seasons, but the pattern is shattered by the family’s abandonment of the homestead, one of several ways Prairie subtly parodies the simpler Big Woods.

The little house in both titles, that’s another.  In Little House on the Prairie, we witness every step of its construction, which takes about a third of the novel.  In Little House in the Big Woods, the house is simply there, and always has been, at least as far as a four year old can tell.  Presumably, it is also nearly new, built by Pa with the assistance of his nearby relatives, but to Laura, like the reader, the house simply is.  Pa tells stories about his childhood, which he emphasizes was different than that of his daughters.  Those stories are the sum total of history for Laura.

I didn’t really see this until the very end of the novel.  Little House in the Big Woods, despite the different circumstances, ends much like Little House on the Prairie – more parody.  Pa fiddles and sings while Laura fails to fall asleep.

The long winter evenings of fire-light and music had come again.

Pa’s fiddle wailed while Pa was singing:

  “Oh, Susi-an-na, don’t you cry for me,
   I’m going to Cal-i-for-ni-a,
   The gold dust for to see.” (236-7)

The endings of both novels even share the same song, not so ironic here, or not that I can see.  Foreshadowing, maybe.  Soon, they will be off to see the Oklahoma gold dust.

Then Pa began to play again the song about Old Grimes.  But he did not sing the words he had sung when Ma was making cheese.  These words were different.  Pa’s strong, sweet voice was softly singing:

[And here we have the most familiar bit of Burns, from “Auld Lang Syne”]

When the fiddle had stopped singing Laura called out softly, “What are the days of auld lang syne, Pa?”

“They are the days of a long time ago, Laura,” Pa said.  “Go to sleep, now.”

But Laura lay awake a little while, listening to Pa’s fiddle softly playing and to the lonely sound of the wind in the Big Woods.  She looked at Pa sitting in the bench by the hearth, the fire-light gleaming on his brown hair and beard and glistening on the honey-brown fiddle.  She looked at Ma, gently rocking and knitting.

She thought to herself, “This is now.”

She was glad that the cosy house, and Pa and Ma and the fire-light and the music, were now.  They could not be forgotten, she thought, because now is now.  It can never be a long time ago.

The End.  Those are the final lines.  St. Augustine, turning to the nature of time in the Confessions (397-8) writes that “it is abundantly clear that neither the future nor the past exist” (XI.20) and:

It is in my own mind, then, that I measure time.  I must not allow my mind to insist that time is something objective…  All the while the man’s attentive mind, which is present, is relegating the future to the past. (XI.27)

The ironies multiply as five year old Laura discovers the Augustinian nature of time.  The adult Laura, sixty years in the future, knows how the child is wrong – oh, it was a long time ago.  And the author knows that soon – that spring, or is it a year later? – that house and fire (but not the music) would be abandoned for another, and then another, and so on.  One more ironic turn – Laura’s memories are a bit less likely to forgotten, now, aren’t they?

“I confess to you Lord, that I still do not know what time is” (XI,25), St. Augustine laments.  Little House in the Big Woods is an altogether simpler book then Little House on the Prairie, less ambiguous, and, I suspect, written at a slightly lower reading level.  But it ends with an Augustinian meditation on the nature of time!  A simple one, just the beginning of the idea, but still!  Fine, you were expecting that.  Fine.  It surprised me.

St. Augustine quotations from the 1961 Penguin Classics edition, translated by R. S. Pine-Coffin, if you can believe it.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Irony, ambiguity, and the usual literary business - the not-so-radical politics of Little House on the Prairie

The prairie in Little House on the Prairie is in Indian Territory; the little house is illegal.  In the book – no idea what happened in so-called real life – Pa had thought settlement was legal, or, a bit of ambiguity, soon would be, and piles the family back into the wagon the instant he learns that soldiers plan to uproot the settlers.  That cabin, constructed piece by piece for the first third of the novel, is simply abandoned, along with a new plow and a freshly-planted garden.

The politics of Little House on the Prairie are, as suits a genuine work of literature, ironic and complicated.  Please see this book review at Reading, Writing, etc. for the case that the politics are earnest and simple.  I’ll confess, Jane, as I reread that post and compare it to the novel I just read, I don’t understand a word of it.

I mentioned yesterday that the family is threatened with utter destruction four times.  Twice they succeed through pluck and rugged individualism.  See the ford crossing in Chapter 2 and the prairie fire, an early example of U.S. magical realism, in Chapter 22.  Twice, their survival depends entirely on the fortunate intervention of others.  Here I mean, first, Chapter 15, where the entire family gets malaria, dehabilitated to the point where Laura commits a great act of heroism simply by crawling across the floor with a cup of water, and the family is saved only by the entirely fortuitous intervention of a neighbor, and second, the terrifying Chapter 22, in which a council of Osage Indians debate whether to wage war on the settlers.  The anti-war party wins the debate.  In other words, Laura and her family are saved from death in a frontier war at the hands of the Osage by the actions of other Osage.

If we are scoring the “individualism vs society” match, I think we end up with a 2-2 tie.

Similarly, when Pa learns he will – or might – be evicted, he offers no resistance.  One might wonder if this restless man is in fact a little too eager to move on, but that’s a different issue.  There are two sets of neighbors.  A married couple, portrayed as semi-competent and hostile to Indians, wants to fight back.  A bachelor frontiersman, coon cap and all, is like Pa, instantly ready to resume his ramblin’ ways.  Amusingly, he leaves on a raft – he’s Huck Finn!  My point is, I detect the presence of contrasting views.

The end of the novel is brilliant.  The family is camped out, a pause in the journey to wherever Plum Creek is (Minnesota, right?).  Everyone is happy, oh so happy.  The horses are happy.  The dog is happy (“he curled into that round nest with a flop and sigh of satisfaction,” 334).  Pa, always positive, is singing and playing his fiddle.  Pa is always happy.

Except that he is, in fact, angry, and he expresses his anger through ironic songs.  He plays a little bit of “Oh, Susanna” – don’t you cry for him.  And doesn’t “Oh, Susanna” also appear at the very end of Little House in the Big Woods, in an altogether more placid context?  It does, two pages from the end, exactly where it is placed here!  A fragment of “Dixie.”  A bit of “Rally Round the Flag”:

The fiddle began to play a marching tune, and Pa’s clear voice was singing like a deep-toned bell.

  “And we’ll rally round the flag, boys,
   We’ll rally once again,
   Shouting the battle-cry of Freedom!”

Laura felt that she must shout, too.

This is the very last page.  Ma suggests Pa shift to something less likely to make little girls of a certain emotional temperament want to shout.

She began to drift over endless waves of prairie grasses, and Pa’s voice went with her, singing.

  “Row away, row o’er the waters so blue,
   Like a feather we sail in our gum-tree canoe.
   Row the boat lightly, love, over the sea;
   Daily and nightly I’ll wander with thee.”

That’s the end.  It’s an ironic revisiting of the end of Little House in the Big Woods, a high-level literary feat.  Showy, even.  That’s for tomorrow.  But just to stay with this passage – the motif of singing (those always-singing prairie stars), the metaphorical sea of the prairie merging with the actual-yet-imaginary sea of the song, the familial wanderlust of the final line.  How is this not great writing?

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

There was no end to that long, long line - she could not say what she meant - the sublime Laura Ingalls Wilder

Does a reader need Edmund Burke to truly understand Little House on the Prairie?  Not exactly, no.  Not exactly.  Wilder is trying to recreate an experience she had as a child, her deep unconscious response to the wildness and immensity of the prairie.  She needs a language to do this, a literary language.  Some of this literary language comes from a tradition that begins in the mid-18th century, partly with Burke.  That's all.

I was just leafing through a copy of a manuscript Wilder titled Pioneer Girl, a memoir written before the Little House books.  Non-fiction.  The constant communion with the stars was not there, nor was much of the matter I am labeling “sublime.”  That was all added later, an integral part of what makes Wilder’s books literature.  The sublime is not an important theme of Little House in the Big Woods, although there are hints.  But it provides a thematic frame that runs all the way through Little House on the Prairie and is an essential part of understanding the characters – how Ma, tough and self-reliant as she is, is a different kind of pioneer than her husband (she’s saner, for example), or how Laura differs from her sister Mary.

The climax of Little House on the Prairie is actually about the sublime, or whatever word one might want to substitute – the uncontrollable emotional response that is too big to understand.  Chapter 23, “Indian War-Cry,” is tense, and genuinely threatening.  The war cries and drums of the Osage Indians invade the little house.  The dog growls, Pa can’t whistle (and then can), an Indian rides by – “the lonely sound of the rider’s galloping” (294).  The chapter is written in sounds.

The next one begins with sounds, too, safe ones, from an owl and frogs, but ends in silence.  A line of migrating Osage ride by the cabin.  Laura and her family watch them go by, for hours.

As far as she could see to the west and as far as she could see to the east there were Indians. There was no end to that long, long line. (310)

Look, it’s the sublime again, more sections of Burke’s book – Infinity (2.VIII), and Succession and Uniformity (2.IX).  Something begins to happen to Laura – to the whole family, actually, but particularly to Laura.  Since the first chapter, Laura has wanted to see a papoose.  She finally does.

Laura looked straight into the bright eyes of the little baby nearer her.  Only its small head showed above the basket’s rim.  Its hair was a black as a crow and its eyes were black as a night when no stars shine.

Those black eyes looked deep into Laura’s eyes and she looked deep down into the blackness of that little baby’s eyes, and she wanted that one little baby.

“Pa,” she said, “get me that little Indian baby!” (308)

Laura has a hysterical fit.  I really wonder what I saw in this as a young reader.  Wanting something I couldn’t have, and screaming about it, that I understood.  This is not exactly a toy, though.  What is it?  Why does she want it?

“It’s eyes are so black,” Laura sobbed.  She could not say what she meant. (309)

Throughout the novel, the stars are always “glittering,” as are the black eyes of Indians, adults who wander by the cabin.  Wilder does not need that word here, since she has already established a close link between stars and the eyes of the Indians, so she does it differently.  Those black eyes also, like the stars, offer a path to – no one knows where.

The passage of the Indians is the emotional high point of the novel.  Nothing has happened, and there was no danger at all, but the family is shattered, exhausted.

And nothing was left but silence and emptiness.  All the world seemed very quiet and lonely. (311)

This chapter of Little House on the Prairie is itself sublime.  Or so I found it as an adult reader.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Little House on the Prairie and the Prairie Sublime - a Burkean interpretation

Laura Ingalls Wilder writes under the sway of the aesthetic ideas of Edmund Burke. No, not kidding - she may not have known it, but it's true.  She continually differentiates between the picturesque and the sublime.  Little House on the Prairie is an investigation of the Prairie Sublime, closely related to Mountain Sublime, Ocean Sublime, and Desert Sublime.  It has something to do with the prairie sky.

The wind made a lonely sound in the grass.  The camp fire was small and lost in so much space.  But large stars hung from the sky, glittering so near that Laura felt she could almost touch them. (Ch 1, 13)

Thickly in front of the open wagon-top hung the large, glittering stars.  Pa could reach them, Laura thought.  She wished he would pick the largest one from the thread on which I hung from the sky, and give it to her.  She was wide awake, she was not sleepy at all, but suddenly she was very much surprised.  The large star winked at her! (3, 37)

The large, bright stars hung down from the sky.  Lower and lower they came, quivering with music.  “What is it, Laura?” she asked, and Laura whispered, “The stars were singing”…  But the fiddle was till singing in the starlight.  The night was full of music, and Laura was sure that part of it came from the great, bright stars swinging so low above the prairie. (4, 50-1)

Laura is not actually carried off into the stars in every chapter, although it can seem like it, and the theme returns at the novel’s climax, and again at its very end, where the stars, curiously, have lost their power and are now “safe and comfortable” (334-5).  The word "glittering" turns out to be a leitmotif.

When I look into Edmund Burke’s A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757), just at the chapter titles, I am amazed by how many of Burke’s examples of the sublime are employed by Wilder.  Obscurity, Vastness, Difficulty, Suddenness, The cries of Animals, Bitters and Stenches.  “Such sounds as imitate the natural inarticulate voices of men, or any animals in pain or danger, are capable of conveying great ideas” (Burke, 2, XX).  I’m not sure what “great ideas” the wolf pack of Chapter 7 suggests to little Laura, but the ring of wolves around the house has the right combination of beauty and terror.

Laura could hear their breathing.  When they saw Pa and Laura looking out, the middle of the circle moved back a little way. (7, 97)

Laura and her father are watching the wolves from the house.  The wolves are terrifying in some sense, yet Laura is actually perfectly safe.  Thus, the aesthetic sublime.

The emotional base of the sublime – I’m following, and agree with, Burke – is fear, “that state of the soul, in which all its motions are suspended, with some degree of horror” (2, I).  As we aestheticize the sublime we somehow tame it.  We even seek out the sublime and find pleasure in its thrill.  The sense of threat rarely eases in Little House on the Prairie.  The threats are often real, of course – I count four episodes where the entire family nearly dies - but Laura, the child, also has a series of powerful emotional responses to them.  It is perhaps key that the child does not always consciously recognize the threat.

Laura’s parents embody contrary responses to the Prairie Sublime.  Ma is more open about her fear, and struggles to control it, while Pa, like his daughter Laura, is attracted to the big sublime experiences. It's Pa and Laura who want to see those wolves, not Ma or sister Mary.  A theme of the entire series, at least as I remember it, is The Taming of Pa, as setbacks and responsibilities break him of his taste for risk and solitude.  Ma wins.  That family should not be out on that prairie.

Page numbers are from the 1953 uniform edition.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Think of having a whole penny for your very own. - Laura Ingalls Wilder ruins Christmas (kidding! kidding!) - memories of Little House on the Prairie

I recently read the two early Laura Ingalls Wilder novels, Little House in the Big Woods (1932) and Little House on the Prairie (1935), a child’s view of life on the Midwestern frontier during the early 1870s.  No children were involved in the reading of these novels – I read them for my own pleasure.

They’re both excellent, as I assume everyone knows.  Little House on the Prairie is better, by which I mean nothing more than “more complex.”  It might even be one of the 50 Greatest English-language Novels Written Since 1880, why not?

I want to write a post or two or three about these books, and for some reason I feel the need to reassure readers that I am not trying to damage their childhood memories.  On the one hand, this is absurd. They’re fine books and I’m a gentle Appreciationist, and we are all adults.  On the other hand, poking around Ye Olde Internet a bit for other blog writing about Wilder, I have discovered that those warm childhood feelings can be delicate, lacey things, torn to shreds by the slightest pressure.  I encountered a surprising resentment of anything that made the novels interesting.

Those are the parts I want to write about, the interesting parts!  I should stop here.  Anything else I have to say will sound insulting.  A warning, then: I am going to write about these novels as conscious works of art that employ concepts like irony and ambiguity.  Anyone who fears for their childhood should rejoin Wuthering Expectations next week, when I will discuss – no, sorry, that’ll probably be John Henry Newman, so skip that.  Coming up, maybe: a Thackeray novel few people should read.  I mean, it’s brilliant, but who are we kidding?  So that’s useless.  Emily Dickinson, maybe come back for Emily Dickinson.

Should I reveal my own crushed memory?  Actually, it was just slightly bent.  Little House on the Prairie has a Christmas scene which had a powerful effect on me.  On the Kansas prairie, forty miles from the nearest town, Laura and her sister Mary receive identical presents: a peppermint stick, a tin cup, a little heart-shaped cake made of white flour, and, what abundance, a penny!

They had never even thought of such a thing as having a penny.  Think of having a whole penny for your very own.  Think of having a cup and a cake and a stick of candy and a penny. (Ch. 19)

Oh, I thought about it all right.  I thought and thought, enough to memorize the list of gifts, although for some reason I had forgotten the cake (that's the bent memory).  My conclusion, after all of that thought, was that regardless of virtues the author is trying to inculcate, that was a horrible Christmas.  Laura Ingalls Wilder confirmed me in my selfish materialism.  That penny was the crowning insult.

But Mary and Laura looked at their beautiful cakes and played with their pennies and drank water out of their new cups.

Drank – water.  Played with their – pennies.  Oh, no no no.  At this point in my life, I have no interest whatsoever in receiving Christmas presents, and would be delighted to receive nothing more than, say, a single square of dark chocolate.  Or two, so I can share.  Perhaps this is the long-delayed influence of the asceticism of Laura Ingalls Wilder!  Still, any kid who gets presents from me will be sure to receive at least two pennies and two tin cups and two peppermint sticks (and two cakes - forgot 'em again), for which he can thank Little House on the Prairie.

I think everything I just wrote is more or less true, except the word “asceticism” is a joke.  To Laura, in the novel, that Christmas really is abundant.  That might even be a theme of these wonderfully material books.  Maybe I should write about that.  There’s a lot a person could write about.  These are complex books.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Hawthorne's notebooks - too much, not enough

The Blithedale Romance contains an amazing drowning scene, a search for the body of a person feared drowned .  Chapter XXVII, “Midnight.”  Victim’s name omitted:

Hollingsworth at first sat motionless, with the hooked pole elevated in the air.  But, by and by, with a nervous and jerky movement, he began to plunge it into the blackness that upbore us, setting his teeth, and making precisely such thrusts, methought, as if he were stabbing at a deadly enemy.  I bent over the side of the boat.  So obscure, however, so awfully mysterious, was that dark stream, that - and the thought made me shiver like a leaf - I might as well have tried to look into the enigma of the eternal world, to discover what had become of [the victim’s] soul, as into the river's depths, to find her body.  And there, perhaps, she lay, with her face upward, while the shadow of the boat, and my own pale face peering downward, passed slowly betwixt her and the sky!

The chapter has a lot of good writing.  It is drawn not from anything that happened at Brook Farm, where The Blithedale Romance is partly set, but on an entirely separate incident Hawthorne had witnessed, in which a servant girl drowned, probably by suicide.

In the novel, the chapter is a highlight.  The end of the above paragraph seems especially good to me, especially well imagined, but the “nervous and jerky” “stabbing” with the pole is sinister and even the dead shivering simile, “like a leaf,” takes on more life amidst other, actual, shivering leaves.  The atmosphere is functionally oppressive, but see how Hawthorne rubs it in – “obscure” and “mysterious” and “enigma.”  Maybe it’s laid on a bit thick.

I remember the episode, as recounted in The American Notebooks, as being at least as good as the one in the novel.  More clinical, I think.  When I turned to the edition at hand, though, the 1896 reprint of the 1868 Passages from the American Note-books, I couldn’t find it.  Sophia Hawthorne suppressed it.  The entirety of Twenty Days with Julian & Little Bunny by Papa is also absent.  Help!

Hawthorne’s notebooks contain a great deal of his best writing.  I have read the Centenary editions (Ohio State University) of both The American Notebooks and The English Notebooks, and am eager to read The French and Italian Notebooks.  These are the complete notebooks, with modern critical editing and annotations.  It actually shocks me a little that as charming a book as Julian & Little Bunny was first published in 1972 embedded in one of these ungainly 1,000 page bricks.

I could easily recommend a fat one volume condensation of the Centenary notebooks, if such a book existed.  Library of America?  NYRB?  Hmmm?  As it is, there’s either the Centenary edition, or texts that omit anything Sophia Hawthorne did not want the world to know about her husband.  For example – this is from memory – she excised most of Hawthorne’s references to drinking or smoking cigars, which might be understandable if he were an alcoholic, but I’m talking about a drink and cigar after dinner while on vacation.  She snips out dismayed reactions to Liverpool poverty, a couple of lines about Herman Melville’s tormented atheism, and who knows what else.  She leaves in his complaints about museums, luckily for me.

It’s a paradox.  Sophia’s version is Not Enough.  The complete version is Too Much.  If somebody will solve this problem for me, I’d appreciate it.  I’ll buy a copy, and ask my library to buy another.  Thanks in advance.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Hawthorne the tourist

Odd how so many of the great mid-19th century American writers were so odd.  Poe, Melville, Hawthorne, Dickinson, and so on.  Nathaniel Hawthorne was merely odd imaginatively - merely.  He seems like a good father and husband, a socially friendly fellow, a more than competent bureaucrat.  His extensive notebooks make him seem genial and altogether normal, except for the fact that from time to time he tried to make a living as a professional writer, and, with his odd productions of genius, from time to time succeeded.

The English Notebooks covers 1853 to 1857, when Hawthorne worked at the American consulate in Liverpool.  He was not writing anything for publication, but kept a journal that amounts to 500 or 600 pages, most of it excellent, if soemtimes repetitive.  Hawthorne, and this was true his whole life, did almost all of his journal-writing while on vacation.  He writes little about his day to day activities at the consulate, unless something extraordinary occurs, but fills page after page with detailed descriptions of wherever he took the family on their weekend day trip, whatever was close, by train, to Liverpool.  Hawthorne is especially fond of Chester, which does sound quite nice.  When Herman Melville came to visit, on his way to the Holy Land, Hawthorne immediately took him to Chester.

Perhaps I do not find Hawthorne odd because I identify so closely with his constant worry that he is a bad tourist.  Museums he finds particularly deadly, yet he drags himself through them, again and again.  The visit to Walter Scott’s mansion that I mentioned yesterday also included a tour of Scott’s armory, which contained Rob Roy’s rifle and Claverhouse’s pistol and

a thousand other things, which I knew must be most curious, yet did not ask nor care about them, because so many curiosities drive one crazy, and fret one’s heart to death.  (The English Notebooks, May 10, 1856)

He is hardly any happier in the Louvre, where he writes about the visitors and the architecture, but almost nothing about the art, aside from a miniature of Benjamin Franklin.  Some of his anxiety may be more peculiar to a creative person than to the typical tourist, as in this reaction to the Louvre’s enormous collection of pencil drawings:

No doubt, the painters themselves had often a happiness in these off-hand sketches, which they never felt again in the same work, and which resulted in disappointment, after they had done their best.  (The French and Italian Notebooks, Jan. 10, 1858)

Hawthorne later cannibalized the English notebooks for an unfinished novel, and the Italian notebooks for The Marble Faun, but this is probably not anticipatory of Hawthorne’s feelings about his own off-hand sketches.  Probably.

Hawthorne is disappointed by Stonehenge, and baffled by picture galleries, but he does really fall in love with English cathedrals.  He is in Salisbury:

Cathedrals are almost the only things (if even those) that have quite filled out my ideal here in this old world; and cathedrals often make me miserable from my inadequacy to take them wholly in; and, above all, despise myself when I sit down to describe them. (The English Notebooks, June 17, 1858)

He takes to French food easily enough, and recommends its study.  He’s right, of course, but he had been living in England for four years – “sirloins, joints, joints, steaks, steaks, steaks, chops, chops, chops, chops!” (French and Italian, Jan. 10, 1858).  I have just now set foot in Rome with Hawthorne.  If I did not know his biography, I would feel anxious that the sheer bulk of Italian art treasures might literally kill him.  Perhaps the Italian food sustained him.  I’ve heard it is good.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

No, I never shall be inspired to write romances! says Nathaniel Hawthorne

Here we have Nathaniel Hawthorne describing his 1856 visit to Walter Scott’s house.  Scott, at this point, had been dead for 24 years, and was the Greatest Novelist Ever.

The servant told me that I might sit down in this chair, for that Sir Walter sat there while writing his romances, "and perhaps," quoth the man, smiling, "you may catch some inspiration."  What a bitter word this would have been if he had known me to be a romance-writer!  "No, I never shall be inspired to write romances!" I answered, as if such an idea had never occurred to me.  I sat down, however.*

Hawthorne, at this point, had written, among other books, three novels and three volumes of stories.  The previous novel, The Blithedale Romance, was three years behind him; his last novel, The Marble Faun, was four years and one long trip to Italy ahead of him.

Yesterday I distinguished, vaguely, between novels and romances, just as Hawthorne and the servant did here.  No definition completely differentiates the two forms, in part because the modern novel has colonized and swallowed up earlier forms, absorbing them into what we call the novel.  Scott himself called the novel “a fictitious narrative… accommodated to the ordinary train of human events,” which ain’t bad but has its problems.**  He is trying to distinguish the novel as he understands it from Gothic fantasies or German fairy stories, all texts that, if long enough, whatever that means, we blithely label novels.  Still – “ordinary”?  Perhaps one could usefully drag in the word “realism,” but I fear that watery concept would not dispel but concentrate the fog.

Well, as a Modernist reading after a century of explicit genre-pushing experimentation, I don’t actually care what a novel is, and I happily call all sorts of strange things novels.  I’m trying to get at what Scott and Hawthorne were trying to get at.  A clue was provided to me by bibliographing nicole’s recent pieces about The Bride of Lammermoor (1819), in which she reminds me that Scott, like Hawthorne, wrote hybrid novels, blends of the ordinary and the extraordinary.  Lammermoor blends old legends, fairy curses, and prophecies of doom with meticulously researched costumes and customs.  Like The Blithedale Romance, Scott’s novel is a stagey book, with the author shuffling a handful of characters and settings, or, to borrow from film, sets.

Now, The Bride of Lammermoor is the most romance-like of the seven Scott novels I have read – Ivanhoe is close, I guess.  Lammermoor is that much closer to Lancelot wandering through the woods in Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur (1485) or the nobles disguised as shepherds in Philip Sidney’s Arcadia (1593, more or less) than to Don Quixote or Clarissa.  How much closer?  Uh, you know, that much.  None of this is clear-cut.

Here’s one way I think of the difference – no, a way I imagine the difference.  Every piece of fiction has some sort of complicated relationship with the actual world.  Some texts earnestly mimic the real world, some playfully mock it.  Romances create stronger boundaries between the book’s world and the real world.  A more typical Scott novel, Waverley (1814), say, by using actual historical events and personages, interweaves itself with the real world, while The Bride of Lammermoor is somehow more sealed off from it.  Hawthorne deceptively writes “about” Puritans or Brook Farm, but his novels and stories are hermetic fantasies.  Like I said, this is an imaginative view.  Or – what are some harsher words? – vague, unformed, fallacious, wrong.

* From the long May 10, 1856 entry, Passages from the English Note-books, 1870.

** I found the quotation, ellipses and all, in “Novel, rise of the”, The Oxford Companion to English Literature, 5th edition, ed. Margaret Drabble, 1985.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

A book with a sort of sluggish flow - an exhibition of a mechanical diorama - The Blithedale Romance, not a novel

Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novels can be so frustrating, mainly because they are not novels.  Not quite.  The Scarlet Letter is subtitled “A Romance,” and so is The Marble Faun.  The Blithedale Romance puts the word in the title.  Hawthorne is not exactly hiding the fact that he is writing something other than this new-fangled “novel” contraption, that he is looking back at earlier models of prose fiction, and that his books have as much in common with The Fairie Queen or Malory’s Morte d’Arthur as with Charles Dickens or Jane Austen.

I haven’t read The Marble Faun yet, but now that I have read the results of Hawthorne’s most amazing burst of creativity, the one that produced The Scarlet Letter (1850), The House of Seven Gables (1851), and The Blithedale Romance (1852), as well as the two children’s books I mentioned yesterday (and also, come to think of it, the 1851 summer journal that is Twenty Days with Julian & Little Bunny by Papa), my conclusion is that Hawthorne is at his best when he is least novelistic, that the weakest parts of his books are the most novel-like.

His characters, the few he uses, are static and emblematic, and his setting or frame is constrained – tiny, even.  The books consist of a small number of grand scenes, often fantastic pieces of writing that leave me a bit awestruck, held together my more ordinary writing that is little more than novelistic adhesive.  In The Scarlet Letter, the big scenes seem huge, and the connective tissue minimal, while the later novels feel more gristly.

Reading The Blithedale Romance finally helped me see the theatricality of Hawthorne’s novels.  The Blithedale Romance is particularly packed with performances and costumes.  The utopian community at the center of the novel is itself like a play, with the poets and intellectuals playing the role of farmer.  I wonder where Hawthorne gets this.  From Shakespeare, maybe?  In his notebooks, I don’t remember much interest in the actual theater.

It’s not that the great scenes are themselves like something from the stage (although the center of The Scarlet Letter, the Dimmesdale’s vigil in Chapter 12, actually takes place on a stage).  The extraordinary “Governor Pyncheon” chapter from The House of Seven Gables depends on a particular sense of the passage of time that would be impossible to imitate in a play.  What might be my favorite scene in The Blithedale Romance has a similar static structure.

It’s Chapter 17, “The Hotel.”  The narrator has left the utopian farm and is sitting in a hotel room, where, for an entire chapter, he does nothing.  Or close to it – “The gradual waste of my cigar accomplished itself with an easy and gentle expenditure of breath.”  He also fails to read a novel, a book which was “of the dullest, yet had a sort of sluggish flow, like that of a stream in which your boat is as often aground as afloat.”  I don’t think he’s describing his own book.  Otherwise, the narrator sits, looks out the window, and listens, pausing to “enjoy the moral sillabub until quite dissolved away.”*

He hears the guests and the kitchen clatter and clocks and fire bells.  “A company of the city soldiery, with a full military band, marched in front of the hotel, invisible to me, but stirringly audible both by its foot-tramp and the clangor of its instruments.”  And, most weirdly:

In some public hall, not a great way off, there seemed to be an exhibition of a mechanical diorama; for three times during the day occurred a repetition of obstreperous music, winding up with the rattle of imitative cannon and musketry, and a huge final explosion.  Then ensued the applause of the spectators, with clap of hands and thump of sticks, and the energetic pounding of their heels.

Hawthorne’s own stories often remind me of the exhibition of a mechanical diorama.  In “The Artist of the Beautiful” (1844), the culmination of the artist’s life is the creation of a delicate mechanical butterfly.  I’m not sure that the novel is really meant to contain mechanical butterflies, and I fear I sometimes crush them between the pages.  But Hawthorne’s novels are not really novels, so it’s all right.

* Maybe I’ll make sillabub for Thanksgiving.  Or syllabub, or sabayon, or zabaglione – lemon sillabub, probably, rather than moral sillabub.

Monday, November 1, 2010

The effect is like bedaubing a marble statue with paint - Hawthorne meddles with classical myths

Since I ended last week with a cutesy 19th century sex joke, it is only appropriate that I begin this week with another, this time from a book for children.

So King Cadmus dwelt in the palace, with his new friend Harmonia, and found a great deal of comfort in his magnificent abode, but would doubtless have found as much, if not more, in the humblest cottage by the wayside.  Before many years went by, there was a group of rosy little children (but how they came thither has always been a mystery to me) sporting in the great hall, and on the marble steps of the palace, and running joyfully to meet King Cadmus when affairs of state left him at leisure to play with them. (1381)

It’s between the parentheses. The joke. Look, I didn’t say it was a great joke. It's just unexpected. 

The source of that passage is the story “The Dragon’s Teeth” from Tanglewood Tales for Girls and Boys (1853) by Nathaniel Hawthorne, his second collection of Greek myths adapted for children.  I’m not entirely sure why I read it, or its predecessor A Wonder Book for Girls and Boys (1852).  No, I do know.  The neurotic satisfaction of completeness.  What I don’t know is why I do not more actively combat my neuroses.  The two short kiddie books fill out the valuable Library of America Tales and Sketches of Hawthorne, which would be almost 1,200 pages without them, plenty long, but what’s another 300 pages on top of that heap.

If I had read these books as a child, I suspect I would have loved them, but I read lots of mythological stories, so I won't vouch for any other child's response.  I almost wonder if I did read some of these - a phrase or image here and there nagged at me - but who knows.  At their worst, Hawthorne makes some profound tales twee and trivial; at his best, he keeps the essence of the original while cleverly shaving off some of the less savory parts.  The first book, The Wonder Book, has a frame in which children, and a skeptical adult, comment on the stories:

"Eustace," remarked Mr. Pringle, after some deliberation, "I find it impossible to express such an opinion of this story as will be likely to gratify, in the smallest degree, your pride of authorship.  Pray let me advise you never more to meddle with a classical myth.  Your imagination is altogether Gothic, and will inevitably Gothicize everything that you touch.  The effect is like bedaubing a marble statue with paint.” (1254)

If I understand the current ideas about Greek statuary correctly, that last complaint has become doubly ironic.

Two good reasons for an adult to look at these stories.  First, The Wonder Book is part of the background of the delightful Twenty Days with Julian & Little Bunny by Papa, recommended to anyone, anywhere.  Second, just skip to the last two pages of The Wonder Book, where the inventor of the stories mounts Pegasus to visit Longfellow and Oliver Wendell Holmes and Herman Melville, “shaping out the gigantic conception of his ‘White Whale’” (1301), before flying to Boston to have Ticknor & Co. publish A Wonder Book and becoming one of “the lights of the age,” a process that will take "about five months."

"Poor boy!" said Primrose, half aside. "What a disappointment awaits him!" (1302)

Page numbers from that Library of America book.